As recently as the late 1980s, the corporation synonymous with Seattle was something other than Microsoft Corp. (MSFT). Personal computers weren’t as ubiquitous as they are today, but airliners were. And no American company has manufactured more of them, in more sizes and capacities, than Boeing Co. (BA).
In 2001, the world’s largest aerospace company moved from Seattle to Chicago.
Aerospace is an extremely capital-intensive industry, one in which latecomers have a huge disadvantage. That’s why there are only two manufacturers of widebody commercial jets to speak of, and only one in the United States (France’s Airbus Group being the other). Today Boeing has some of the longest backorders in all of the industry (more on that later) and a market cap of $195.747 billion. Boeing’s footprint is colossal. (For related reading, see: The Real Secret to Microsoft’s Success.)
More than Just Coach Class
Boeing goes way beyond the production of the 737s, 777s, and 787s you’re likely familiar with, with enormous military operations complementing the company's civilian production. Boeing travels well beyond cruising altitude, too. It’s the primary contractor for the International Space Station, or at least for the station’s American components.
In fact, commercial airplanes represent but one of Boeing’s three principal segments. The other two are financing; and defense, space and security — the latter divided into military aircraft, network & space systems, and global services & support. “Military aircraft” is self-explanatory, or should be. Boeing’s best-known military planes are the F-18 Hornet (travels at Mach 1.8 and is flown by the Navy and Marines; the Blue Angels fly F-18s), the F-15 Strike Eagle, the Chinook, and Apache helicopters and the Bell Helicopter/Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor.
Network and space systems is Boeing’s research & development arm — missile defense systems, satellites and the vehicles that launch them, and the ISS.
On June 26, 2018, Boeing shared a rendering of its initial design for a hypersonic passenger plane. How much the company will spend on the project remains unclear. The company still faces many technological challenges and potential costs might be quite high, so the potential for profit remains uncertain.
From the Ground Up
As for global services & support, that’s maintenance and pilot training. When a company builds such specialized equipment, it’s easier for its airline clients to let the manufacturer teach the technical stuff, and instruct pilots on how to stay up to date on the latest developments, than to do it themselves.
The financing arm of the company, Boeing Capital, is small enough that it bears little relevance to the company’s bottom line and can probably be ignored for our purposes. Boeing Capital earned $114 million from operations of $10 billion in total operations in 2017, making it remunerative on a per-dollar basis but still contributing barely 1% of Boeing’s profits.
For 2017, Boeing reported a record operating cash flow of $13.3 billion. The company earned a revenue of $93.4 billion through a record 763 commercial deliveries. Because the individual items Boeing sells are so expensive, and thus are only ordered after compendious research and analysis (and negotiation), Boeing can assess with some accuracy how many planes it’ll manufacture in the next year or two. In a delightful example of full disclosure, Boeing actually displays a price list on its website.
The cheapest and most popular model — Boeing’s version of the Toyota Camry — was the 737-300. Although Boeing publishes list prices, buying a couple hundred of them at a time, like Irish airline Ryanair did a couple of years ago, might let you pay less than half that. In fact, almost all of Boeing’s major customers get discounts. American Airlines (AAL) received its latest shipment of 737s for 1/3 off list price.
Boeing’s executive team actually has the chutzpah, or prescience, to make forecasts 18 years in the future. The company claims that it will have 5,570 (to the nearest multiple of 10) small widebody jets in service in 2033, and if you can isolate enough variables to make those kinds of predictions, your grasp of financial analysis is beyond human understanding.
The Bottom Line
Boeing is a ringing endorsement of the importance of getting in early. Founded a scant 13 years after the Wright brothers’ initial flight, and leveraging its large-aircraft expertise from developing the first strategic bombers, Boeing has been leading its market for an incredibly long time; the company celebrated its centennial in 2016. The number of market leaders that indisputably dominated their industry in 1916 and still do today is almost nonexistent. (Maybe Spalding in sporting goods, and even it got bought out.) Boeing has not only dominated but has done so in an industry that’s only increased in vitality since the early 20th century. As long as air remains by far the safest, cheapest (if you equate time with money) and most efficient mode of travel — and teleportation still seem many centuries away from commercial use — Boeing’s position as a market leader in an ever-critical market will remain difficult to assail. (For related reading, see: How United Technologies Makes Its Money.)