The 30 Billion Dollar Man

Seddik Belyamani wrote the book on selling passenger jets.

Air & Space Magazine

THE CONTRACT HAD BEEN NEGOTIATED DOWN to the last comma. It covered the sale of 18 Boeing 767s—“A big deal,” as Seddik Belyamani, Boeing’s legendary salesman, puts it, talking quietly on a recent Saturday in the comfortable Bellevue Club in a Seattle suburb.

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“We were staying across the street from the airline. At noon we walk over, saying that we’ll sign and be back for lunch at one o’clock.” In the airline’s boardroom, all appeared to be going swimmingly: “I pick up my pen—it’s a nice Boeing pen, the guy from contracts makes sure that the ink works—and I say, ‘Shall we go?’ The chairman says yes, so I sign, and I move the contract to him to sign.”

That was when the chief financial officer said: “Just a minute, Mr. Chairman.” The chairman put his pen down.

“That pen was down for eight hours,” Belyamani says.

The airline didn’t have a commitment from its bankers to finance the deal, the CFO told the chairman. “We want Boeing to give us an out, or commit to financing the airplanes themselves,” Belyamani recalls the CFO saying. “I put my pen down and said ‘We are not going to give you an out. We just cannot do that.’ ”

The airline execs left the room and came back at 1:30. “By that time we were starving,” says Belyamani, who was stunned when the airline officials presented him with a new offer to buy six 767s, instead of 18. That’s a different deal, Belyamani told them; “We’ll be happy to come back in two weeks with a new proposal.”

“My gut told me that they are going to buy these airplanes,” Belyamani says, “and when your gut is right you take a firm stand.” There was no Airbus sales team waiting in the wings, the market was strong, and Boeing could sell the airplanes elsewhere. The airline raised its offer to 12 airplanes, but Belyamani did not budge, increasingly convinced that the airline would make good on its first agreement.

Belyamani’s gut was telling him something else: “It went on until six p.m. They didn’t give us one piece of bread, zero, nothing.” Convinced that this was a deliberate tactic, the Boeing team held their ground until the airline chairman, announcing that he was tired and going to play tennis, invited the famished and frustrated Boeing team home for dinner.

Belyamani told a colleague from the contracts division to bring the final agreement (“boxes and boxes”) but carried in his own pocket a handwritten letter curtly revoking the original offer. (“Sometimes it helps to let your steam off,” he says.) At the house, “the chairman looks at me and he says: ‘Now then…’ ”

Belyamani said nothing. “I put my hand on my mouth”—a gesture that reminds him not to talk, he explains.

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