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The 30 Billion Dollar Man

Seddik Belyamani wrote the book on selling passenger jets.

The next thing the chairman said was “Let’s sign.”

Says Belyamani: “If I had said one word, if I had said ‘Now what is the problem, Mr. Chairman?’ ” the chairman would have seized the opening and Boeing would have had to restart the negotiation. “The moral of the story,” Belyamani says, “is that there is a real person that signs the contract, not a computer, not an Excel spreadsheet.”

“I could tell you that I was fascinated with aviation from the age of five, but it wouldn’t be true,” Belyamani says with the slightest hint of an accent, partly from his upbringing in Morocco, where he was knighted twice by successive rulers, and also from his education in Toulouse, France, home of Boeing’s arch-rival, Airbus.

Bent on a career in electrical engineering building hi-fi systems, he was led by France’s education track into aeronautical engineering. In 1967 he returned to Morocco to join Royal Air Maroc, the nation’s international flag carrier, and in 1970 became vice president of maintenance. But after having lived in France it was hard to settle there.

After a year in Seattle overseeing the delivery of Royal Air Maroc’s first Boeing 727-200, Belyamani attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he developed mathematical models to predict the performance of an airline’s route network and earned a master’s degree. He took those math skills to Eastern Air Lines and didn’t like what he saw: After comparing Eastern’s fleet and routes to those of arch-rival Delta, he recalls, “I got bad vibes and called friends at Boeing.” Were there any openings, he asked?

In 1974, Belyamani was hired as an airline analyst in Seattle, his primary job being to back up the salesmen in the field. He soon got noticed. “We had a 747 that we were selling to an airline in Africa,” he says. “Everything was going smoothly until three months before delivery, and we found that the International Monetary Fund had imposed restrictions on their foreign debt and they couldn’t pay for the airplane.” If there is one thing airplane manufacturers hate, it’s a “white tail”—a completed airplane with no customer and no airline livery.

“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.

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