March 18, 2019
Women in Business Awards 2019

Baker is Collins Aerospace's customer problem-solver

Photo | J. Fiereck Photography
Photo | J. Fiereck Photography

Gail Baker

Senior Vice President, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance & Space Solutions

Collins Aerospace

You know you're in trouble as a manufacturer when an unhappy customer says they won't even allow you to bid on future business.

That was the situation facing UTC Aerospace Systems (UTAS) several years ago when Gail Baker was assigned to try to salvage the company's relationship with Embraer S.A., a Brazilian aircraft maker. UTAS was facing a potential loss of billions of dollars in business due to Embraer's ongoing problems with its products.

"We had provided some systems to them that were falling short of their needs and causing their airlines some issues," Baker said. "We were told if they were going to build a new airplane we were probably not going to be allowed to bid on it. That is a pretty significant statement to come from an airplane manufacturer."

Enter Baker, a rising star in UTAS management with a background in design and project engineering in addition to customer relations. She rallied a team to solve Embraer's problems, mobilizing the best engineering and operations talent in the company. As part of the effort, Baker made 14 trips to Brazil over the course of just 12 months.

"I really wanted to understand what the problems were and how we could solve them. And we did," Baker said. Fast-forward a few years and UTAS not only retained its Embraer business, it won new contracts from the company — a total of about $23 billion in projected revenues.

"We had shown them that we were serious about being their partner," Baker said. "That's a story I'm pretty proud of telling. … It was certainly a team effort."

Leading high-impact teams in a demanding and technical business has vaulted Baker to the top ranks of management at Collins Aerospace, the new company formed when UTAS merged with Rockwell Collins late last year in a $30 billion deal. Collins Aerospace is now a subsidiary of Farmington-based United Technologies Corp.

Baker, who works in Windsor Locks, is vice president and general manager of the Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance & Space Solutions unit, managing 2,600 employees and tens of billions of dollars in mission-critical contracts with the U.S. Department of Defense and NASA.

"She's got every tool in the tool case you would want for a senior leader of a major business," said Dave Gitlin, president and COO of Collins Aerospace. "She's very intelligent, she's very strategic, she's great with people. She's a great communicator. She's technical. She knows how to drive herself, she's very customer-focused. She's just superb to work with."

Growing up in West Hartford, Baker took an early interest in math and science and pursued engineering studies on the suggestion of a high-school guidance counselor. She graduated from Worcester Polytechnic Institute with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering then took a position at UTC in design engineering, drawn by the challenge of creating devices required to function in complex situations.

"I liked the mechanical part of physics … where you're sitting behind a CAD screen and designing things per specifications you get from a customer. It's got to meet certain performance requirements and needs to be able to withstand a certain environment," Baker said.

She went on to earn a master's degree in mechanical engineering and worked on technology in submarines and space suits — Baker helped engineer an LCD screen that astronauts view to monitor their vital signs.

The young engineer was soon drawn to the problem-solving aspects of design and the challenge of working with customers to make technology fit their needs. Posts as a project engineer led to more customer-facing roles, then a swift rise into management as she excelled at tasks like tackling Embraer's issues.

"I like facing challenges head-on so I've never shied away from going into a difficult meeting," Baker said. "I wanted to take that on as a challenge, to fix our problems."

Baker has taken her focus on customer needs to her management positions.

"You have to be empathetic to your customer's issues," she said. "We supply systems that go on somebody else's platform, whether it's a submarine or it's an Army tank or it's an airplane. And those companies that produce the platforms can decide if they want to buy our equipment or not, and they're only going to come to us if we're a good value proposition."

Adapting defense technology for civilian markets is an ongoing mission for Baker, along with maintaining the highest quality and reliability for Collins systems used in national defense.

"I'm really passionate about bringing [the military] the best products we can so the freedoms that we enjoy can be maintained," Baker said.

Baker said she hasn't mapped out her rise in an overwhelmingly male-dominated field, just focused on doing her absolute best on the task at hand at each point in her career.

"I don't spend time thinking about what my next move should be in a very deliberate manner," Baker said. "I guess I do it indirectly by just trying to do the best job that I can in the job that I have at the time, knowing that when you do that, it will usually lead to opportunities."

Q&A

What legacy do you want to leave after your career is over?

I'd like my legacy at UTC to be that I did my best to represent the company well and use its resources in the best possible way to drive improved results. We have such amazingly talented people at UTC and through collaboration and teamwork there is nothing we can't achieve.

I'd like people to think that I focused on the customer and put myself in their shoes, I drove a culture of inclusion, that I worked hard and focused on the job at hand, that I never asked anyone to do a job that I didn't or wouldn't do myself, that I asked tough questions so we could be a better organization, that I held people accountable to their commitments, and that I put the team results ahead of my own. If that's what people remember of my 30-plus year career at UTC, I'd be happy with that.

What are your keys to maintaining business success?

I believe the key to maintaining business success is to focus on the customer and set your short-term and long-term priorities to drive customer value, which is what I've tried to do in each position I've had.

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