Jim Albaugh oversees a business unit that employs 68,000 employees with $31.8 billion revenue last year.
But the executive vice president of The Boeing Co. and president and chief executive officer of Boeing Commercial Airplanes said he was a "pretty normal" kid growing up in Richland.
He played Little League baseball, hunted and fished and delivered the Tri-City Herald to the Spudnut Shop in the Uptown Shopping Center.
"I think I had my first Spudnut when I was 5," he said.
But Albaugh's life today seems anything but normal as he's responsible for all the company's commercial airplanes programs and related services.
Albaugh, 60, returns to his hometown Wednesday as the keynote speaker for the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce's annual meeting and awards luncheon. Albaugh also will receive the Tri-City Region Alumnus of Distinction Award. He will be the first recipient of the award.
Richland resident Toby Bouchey, who attended grade school and high school with Albaugh, said his success hasn't surprised her because Albaugh is a visionary.
"He was always very bright, very articulate, very congenial," she said. "He's a very, very hard worker. He's a very dedicated person. He's very focused."
Lessons at Hanford
Albaugh said that some of his experiences in the Tri-Cities helped him become successful.
After graduating from the former Columbia High School in Richland, he earned a degree in math and physics from Willamette University in Salem and then a master's degree in civil engineering from Columbia University in New York City.
He returned to Richland in 1975 to work as a project engineer at Hanford's nuclear waste storage tanks for Rockwell Co., where he learned project management, safety and quality assurance.
"I got to work for really good bosses there," Albaugh said, adding that one who sticks out was John Roecker.
"One of the things John really taught me is there really are no shortcuts to engineering," Albaugh said. "(The numbers) have to be right. They're not going to change."
Albaugh said that working in the nuclear industry also taught him the importance of perfection and "going the extra mile to make sure you get the outcome you need to have."
"Lives depend on it," he said, and that is a lesson he said has transferred well to his work in aviation.
Albaugh started working for Boeing after Boeing acquired Rockwell in 1996.
He worked his way up from president and CEO of Boeing Space and Communications to president and CEO of Boeing Integrated Defense Systems. He assumed his current position in September 2009.
"I can't think of a more exciting or important time to be working at Boeing Commercial Airplanes than right now," Albaugh said.
Among the honors Albaugh has received while working with Boeing was the Forrestal Award last year from the National Defense Industrial Association for leadership in preserving a strong U.S. industrial base. Boeing rewarded his leadership with a reported $9.29 million in total compensation last year.
A big victory for Boeing came recently when it won a $35 billion contract to build 179 aerial refueling tankers for the U.S. Air Force, a program Albaugh said he's been working on for nine years. "I'm pretty tickled."
He said Boeing expects the contract to provide work for 48,000 people with more than 800 suppliers in more than 40 states.
None of those suppliers is based in the Tri-Cities, said Marc Birtel, spokesman for Boeing Commercial Airplanes.
Albaugh said Boeing also is developing two new planes. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is a family of super-efficient, midsized airplanes. And Boeing said the 747-8 will offer the lowest operating costs and best fuel efficiency of any large passenger or freight airplane.
Boeing also is considering changes to its popular single-aisle 737 model and its 777, which features a spacious cabin and can fly long distances.
Albaugh said he relishes the challenges and opportunities Boeing faces as it competes with other airplane companies around the world, many of which receive government subsidies.
"The competition makes us innovative," he said. "It makes us make the hard decisions."
Proud Richland roots
Despite his high-flying career, Albaugh said he tries to maintain ties to his Richland roots.
"Some of my best friends are the people I grew up with in Richland," he said. "I keep in touch with them."
He said he tries to make it back to Richland once or twice a year to visit those friends and maybe play some golf.
Bouchey said his friends here are somewhat in awe of Albaugh's success, but when they see him, "It's Jim. He's our buddy and he's first and foremost our friend."
Albaugh said that he is proud to let others know where he's from.
"I could say I'm from a lot of places," he said, noting he also has lived in Seattle, Los Angeles, St. Louis and Washington, D.C.
But he said he is from the Tri-Cities.
"It's where I lived and studied and where I first started to work. I do consider it a huge influence on my life," he said.