The 30 Billion Dollar Man
Seddik Belyamani wrote the book on selling passenger jets.
- By Bill Sweetman
- Air & Space magazine, July 2004
(Page 3 of 6)
“We tried to get hold of the airline’s chief financial officer, but the guy was never there,” Belyamani recalls. “I got fed up.” Following a quick inquiry to the U.S. Embassy, the 36-year-old mid-level manager telephoned the president–not of the airline, of the country. “Sir,” he said, “I need to speak to your minister of finance.” Two minutes later, the minister called Belyamani. The sale was back on. As it progressed, “everything went wrong that you could think of,” he says, but the 747 got delivered.
In the early 1980s Belyamani left Seattle and went into the field to sell. Fluent in Arabic and French (and some Spanish), he was assigned exclusively to French-speaking countries. “I was pigeonholed,” he says. “I think that they forgot that I spoke English.” Frank Shrontz, then the company’s vice president of sales, moved Belyamani into Boeing’s biggest markets, and over the next two decades he became its top salesman, retiring in mid-2002 with $30 billion in sales to his credit.
Being one of Boeing’s sales representatives involves travel—lots of it. At one time, Belyamani was on the road for 200 days out of the year, inspiring the classic: “I sat down to family dinner one evening and my wife asked me what I was looking for. I realized I was reaching for my seat belt.” Airline sales staffs worldwide know the joke and its author.
The people who sell large airliners don’t make up a large group, and they all know one another well. They move around but stay in the industry. “It’s a big family of people who have known each other for years,” Belyamani says.
Where there once were a half-dozen or so companies building jet airliners of 100 seats or more, only Boeing and Airbus survive. Boeing normally has between 60 and 70 salespeople in the field; Airbus a similar number.
“What’s special is that there are only two of us,” notes Airbus’ vice president for Middle East sales, Abdellah Sbai. (Coincidentally, Sbai, a rising star at his company, is also Moroccan-born and also entered the business via Toulouse and Royal Air Maroc.) “There’s always a winner and a loser at the end, and you always lose against the same competitor,” he says.
At a personal level, the rivalry between the two giant manufacturers has been friendly. Says Sbai: “We meet in the same waiting rooms and we pass them in the corridors.” But they never talk business, he adds.
During a hard-fought sales campaign in Australia, John Leahy, Airbus’ chief commercial officer, invited him aboard an Airbus A320 in Sydney. “We toasted each other, each of us thinking, Here’s to your loss,” says Belyamani. Boeing prevailed, and Leahy later told Belyamani that he’d send him a photo of their meeting when he was in a better mood.