Challenging the status quo is one of the hallmarks of great leadership. Olive Ann Beech—considered as “The First Lady of Aviation” and also dubbed as the “Queen of the Aircraft Industry”—undoubtedly embodies this characteristic. A bold leader is not afraid to take chances, to take one fearless step in order to inspire courage from others and to change things that are not working anymore. Indeed, a bold leader employs effective leadership skills even amid arduous circumstances.
Still, for Beech, challenging the status quo was not an easy feat. In an era where industries were prevalently male-dominated, she defied the odds as the first woman to lead a major aircraft company. Through effective leadership skills, she steered Beech Aircraft through two wars, launched several aircraft models, paved the way for the country’s space age, and catapulted the company as one of the leaders in the aviation industry.
Resourceful, determined and spirited, Beech conquered the skies through her brand of bold leadership and by employing key effective leadership skills along the way. As Bold Business takes a look at leadership in history, Olive Ann Beech gets this week’s Bold Leader Spotlight.
The Makings of an Eagle
Beech, born Olive Ann Mellor, was raised in rural Waverly, Kansas on September 25, 1903, to working-class parents, Susannah Miller Mellor and Franklin Benjamin Mellor. Her keen appreciation of hard work and independence started at an early age. At 7-years old, she opened her first bank account. By age 11, Beech was helping manage the household finances, writing the checks to pay family bills. While most kids were playing, she started working at age 12. After finishing her business course at the American Secretarial and Business College, she had a brief stint as a bookkeeper at Staley Electrical Company. Her next employment at Travel Air—a newly-established aircraft company then—eventually turned out to be a significant event that shaped Beech’s life course.
Travel Air and Where It All Started
From her bookkeeping duties, Beech proved herself valuable in managing Travel Air’s finances. Soon, she expanded her team and was promoted as office manager. Working with founders Walter Beech, Lloyd Stearman, and Clyde Cessna, Beech and her effective leadership skills kept Travel Air afloat. Eventually, Stearman and Cessna left Travel Air to pursue different paths. Stearman headed to California, while Cessna built his own aircraft company, leaving sole ownership of Travel Air to Walter Beech.
By the end of the 1920s, the aircraft industry was soaring. To keep up with the demand in the industry, Beech urged Walter to complete a $3.5 million merger deal with aircraft engine manufacturer Curtiss-Wright in August 1929. The following year, she and Walter wed, forging one of the most indomitable partnerships in history. A union of opposites, Walter Beech, the charismatic and visionary salesman, and Olive Ann Mellor Beech, the sharp and astute businesswoman.
The Bold Leadership and Effective Leadership Skills of Olive Ann Beech
Risk-Taking is in Her DNA
After a 12-year stint at Curtiss-Wright as a finance manager, Olive Ann—along with husband Walter—decided to start their own aircraft manufacturing company. Armed with two decades of aviation industry experience, the couple headed back to the “Air Capital of the World”—Wichita, Kansas—and established Beech Aircraft in 1932. Despite the troubled state of the aircraft market due to the stock market crash, Olive Ann’s strong business acumen and effective leadership skills propelled Beech Aircraft to greater heights.
A Leader Driven by Results
During the years after the stock market crash of 1929 aircraft, sales were plummeting. To promote Beech Aircraft’s initial model offering, the Staggerwing, Beech commissioned two ace female aviatrices Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes to join the Bendix Race 1936. Thaden and Noyes won the air race with a record landing. The publicity helped increase sales and capture a substantial market share. In the 1940s, while her husband was in a coma due to encephalitis, Beech took over the company. Essentially, her ability to overcome adversity and succeed no matter the environment or circumstances had proven her tenacity and persistence.
Humility, Compassion, and Authentic Leadership
The years during the war was a period of rapid growth for the company. Beech Aircraft Model 17 and 18 were converted for military use. Thinking far ahead into the future—one of her notable effective leadership skills—Beech moved to diversify the company products to include cotton pickers, to washing machines, and to corn harvesters. With an expanded product line, the company was able to add more income stream and earn enough money to keep the employees through war and peace.
A Forward-thinking Leadership for a Better Society
The establishment of a research and development facility at Beech Aircraft helped advance commercial and military aviation, as well as space exploration. Beech Aircraft’s expertise created storage systems for all the Apollo spacecraft and for the space shuttle Orbiter. By the time she retired in the late 60s, the company she had built with Walter in the 1930s had diverged out in various domains—commercial liners, the Army, the Navy, and even space voyage.
The Legacy of Olive Ann Beech
Beech was a beacon in the aviation industry. With her effective leadership skills, she made a bold and lasting impact in the industry. The long list of accolades conferred to her name is proof. In 1943, the New York Times named her one of their Most Distinguished Women in America. Then in 1980, she received the National Aeronautic Association’s Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy. To date, she is one of the only three women who has ever received the prestigious award.
Furthermore, in 1983, Beech was inducted into the American National Business Hall of Fame. Then in 1986, she became the very first inductee in the Kansas Business Hall of Fame. During the twilight years of her life, Beech quietly donated to local charities and educational institutions.
While it is easy to follow the flock and take the well-worn track, she set out to create a path of her own. Olive Ann Beech and her legacy stand as a lasting inspiration for millions of women, urging each one to take a stand and be a bold leader.