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Sunday, February 10, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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New Boeing job tests Watt's power; ex-city official takes on tough task of rehabilitating company's image

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

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Many Seattleites know Bob Watt as the man Boeing tipped off in advance last March about its pending defection from Seattle, a corporate secret so tightly guarded that its revelation prompted former Mayor Paul Schell to mutter plaintively to a high-ranking Boeing executive, "John, why didn't you call?"

But only a few people know that Watt, then the president of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, had sat on the bombshell not for days but for months. Boeing had approached Watt more than three months earlier to help gauge the fallout from what turned out to be a rancorous headquarters move to Chicago.

"I knew for a long time that the announcement was coming," Watt admitted during a recent interview. Boeing "knew I could be trusted with what obviously was a huge decision for the corporation."

Watt's political acumen and discretion has made him a trusted counsel to many of the region's powerbrokers. Former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice, whom Watt served as deputy mayor, is a close friend who calls Watt his alter ego.

Schell's administration quietly sought out Watt for guidance, including whether to levy a tax on pay-parking lots (Watt advised against it). Watt's six years at the Chamber put him elbow to elbow with executives of its 2,800 member companies such as Boeing, Weyerhaeuser and Microsoft.

Now Watt has taken on what may prove to be the ultimate test of his skills: rehabilitating Boeing's civic image and pushing its political and economic agenda in its spurned home state.

On Jan. 3, he became Boeing Commercial Airplanes vice president of government and community affairs. The role makes Watt the aerospace giant's point man on a host of crucial issues, including pushing the Legislature to pass a traffic gridlock-relief bill and the future of Boeing's commitment to the Puget Sound area.

His new job also makes the 56-year-old Watt — a former VISTA volunteer who once taught emotionally disturbed children, and who attended one of only three U.S. colleges to offer a four-year degree in running nonprofits — the ultimate company man.

Boeing "is the best corporate citizen in the region. Somehow, we've gotten to a point where many people think we don't do enough," Watt said, sitting inside Boeing's Commercial Airplanes headquarters in Renton. "Nobody has the feeling that we are revered here. I'd like to change that."

That might have been an easier task before Boeing Chairman Phil Condit and the rest of the corporate executive team bolted for Chicago in September. The loss of the world headquarters underscored the perils of taking Boeing for granted.

At the same time, Boeing's abrupt pullout frayed Washington's loyalty to the company and left the state's political and civic leaders feeling dissed.

One of Watt's first decisions at Boeing helped to illustrate the new dynamic between Washington and its largest employer. Last month, Watt persuaded Boeing Commercial Airplanes Chief Executive Alan Mulally to appear in Olympia to urge lawmakers to address traffic congestion and streamline regulation. Mincing no words, Mulally warned legislators that Boeing has "other states that would love us. I have more offers than I can stand."

Watt offered no apologies for Mulally's blunt message. Unless the Legislature acts "within some relatively brief period of time, every company in the state, not just Boeing, will rightfully conclude that the state has decided not to compete."

Observers say Watt possesses a rare absence of ego and an altruistic temperament that draw others to him. They say Watt's unprepossessing demeanor remains unchanged despite the fact that, 30 years in the nonprofit sector notwithstanding, he has spent the past decade moving among the upper echelons of Seattle's power structure.

"He is a humanist. He really understands and cares about people," said Rice, who with Watt by his side presided over Seattle's resurgence during the early 1990s, when a downtown revitalization plan led to the opening of Pacific Place and Benaroya Hall.

Watt is tall, with the genial countenance of a lanky Santa Claus. He is partial to not particularly fashionable sweaters. It's a combination that helps Watt easily establish rapport with strangers.

When a newspaper photographer shows up laden with heavy gear to take his photograph, Watt helps carry her tripod. Later, when she drops a picture nail while removing it from the wall, Watt gets down on his hands and knees to look for the missing hardware.

"You can tell Bob is genuine. That's what makes people comfortable with him," said Steve Leahy, who was Watt's deputy at the Chamber.

Watt said he acquired his values from his parents, both immigrants from Scotland who learned the art of doing without during the Depression. Watt, his older brother and younger sister grew up in Lake Forest, Ill., a wealthy Chicago suburb, where most of their neighbors were far better off than they.

Watt's own family is an American mosaic. His wife, Juanita, is half Puerto Rican and half Italian. They have one daughter, Lisa, and one adopted son, Rob, who is black. Rob and his wife have one daughter.

He met Juanita when they were both with VISTA, which is known as the domestic Peace Corps.

Watt spent a dozen years with Youth Eastside Services in Bellevue and then took the helm of Family Services of King County. A brief stint as managing director of PhyCom, a software company he co-founded with four others, was Watt's only corporate job until Boeing.

Watt's salary at the Chamber was $229,000. He declined to say how much he will earn at Boeing, but said he is getting a substantial pay increase.

Watt said shifting his allegiance to Boeing didn't entail any dramatic changes in his philosophy, noting that Boeing already was the Chamber's largest member.

But there is no question that Watt speaks for Boeing.

Since October, Boeing has targeted 19,000 jobs nationwide, and says it plans to cut 25,000 to 30,000 jobs by the middle of this year. The fifth round of layoff notices will be issued on Friday.

At the same time, the company has roiled its workers by continuing to shift production and design work out of the Puget Sound area to overseas companies.

Watt defends Boeing's strategy, noting that 70 percent of its commercial jets are sold abroad. He argues that Boeing has an obligation to share its jobs with customers and partner companies around the globe. That shouldn't spell doom for Boeing's Puget Sound-area workers if they can retain core engineering, aircraft development and final assembly work in the area.

"If we keep the high-value work here, there will be plenty of great jobs for people," Watt said.

"Are we trying to take care of the world a little bit? Yes, we are. Chinese people want good jobs, too."

Watt's comment drew a scathing response from Mark Blondin, leader of the Machinists union at Boeing. "They are going to give and give (jobs overseas) until there is nothing left to give," he said. "It's about profits. It's not about creating good jobs someplace else. We are going to fight it."

Watt disagreed that embracing Boeing's global vision belies his commitment to Seattle.

Mulally "wouldn't have hired me if he didn't know that I have deep loyalties to this region," Watt said. "But you have to think worldwide."

Kyung Song: 206-464-2423 or ksong@seattletimes.com.

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