Every second, a Pratt & Whitney Canada powered aircraft takes off or lands somewhere in the world. When listening to Irene Makris discuss the aviation industry from a 30,000-foot overview, as her discourse periodically dives down into details, one gets the distinct impression that the Pratt & Whitney Canada vice president of marketing well knows where each of those takeoffs and landings in the last few minutes occurred. Still, Makris stays on-message with clear, direct answers, befitting an executive with the requisite resume that gives one the opportunity to earn such senior responsibility: an engineering degree, an MBA, engineering, quality auditing, and service and operational experience at Honeywell and GE, maintenance, repair and overhaul program management, supply chain management, vice president of supply chain, and an extensive breadth of knowledge gained while serving as executive assistant to the president of Pratt & Whitney Canada.
Yet, despite those business bona fides, Irene Makris began as, and remains, an engineer at heart: studying pure and applied science in college prior to her engineering degree at McGill University in Montreal. Makris recalls when her enthusiasm grew for the engineering side of her alma mater’s campus. “I wasn’t totally convinced I wanted to major in mechanical engineering. My brother was in engineering at McGill. He was making things fly, building and powering cars, and designing bicycles. It fascinated me. Engineering became my passion and I stuck with it.”
Anne of Green Gables
There aren’t many marketers that can claim engineering passion. That passion, with a lot of stick-to-it persistence, has characterized Makris’ career. After starting off as a reliability engineer for Honeywell in Toronto, still a green new grad she was then offered a role as ISO9001 chief auditor. The newbie took ownership of what many grads would have seen as dead-end career drudgery. “I took that job and made it my own. I want to learn something from everything. It taught me .... a lot. There’s no better job to learn the entire company than auditor; you get to touch everything. It was a super, super move.” Yep, such positivity can convince one that he’s listening to the wrong Canadian optimist, but a quick glance at Makris’ brown, highlighted hair confirms that she’s not the carrot-topped Canadian heroine Anne of Green Gables. Like Lucy Maud Montgomery’s fictional character, our “Anne” eventually returned to her childhood home, which wasn’t Prince Edward Island but Montreal, where she got to indulge her engineering bent as a materials manager for GE Appliances. “It was an amazing experience supervising almost a hundred senior hourly employees and building a relationship of trust, respect and collaboration....some treated me like their daughter....was a great team to work with.,” Makris reminisces. But she found her real career home when she moved from Montreal to Longueuil, Quebec to join Pratt & Whitney Canada.
“When I arrived here at Pratt & Whitney Canada, I felt like ahhh, I’m home. I felt like I had completed my mission; aerospace tied all my past work experience together. What we do in aerospace is amazing; it’s incredible; we make things happen that no one ever dared to dream. Even two years ago no one thought we could innovate like we do today. I feel like what I’m doing is very useful for the world.” Makris loves to share her infectious enthusiasm for aviation not only with industry audiences, but with another very interested, important group. “I even get to go to my kids’ school and tell their classmates what we do and see their eyes open wide. It’s very rewarding.” Irene also strongly supports her alma mater McGill University, and is active in a program called Promoting Opportunities for Women in Engineering. “I really enjoy returning to McGill and giving talks to individuals or groups of engineers. It’s important for young students to hear firsthand other people’s journeys and career paths and motivating them, particularly young women, encouraging them to stick with it and let them hear all that engineering offers. These sessions helped me when I started off and I thought it was my time to give back.” It takes another glance to confirm that Irene Makris is not that school teacher Anne Shirley.
While Makris is enthusiastic about her aviation career, she’s equally glad she did not come to the industry through traditional aviation ranks. “I never had a dream to get into aerospace: I’m a personal example of bringing in someone with diverse, non-aeronautical experience. It’s always good to bring people in from different industries with different ways of approaching things. I was well equipped from my roles at Honeywell and GE that prepared me to come here to Pratt; I had diverse experiences that I brought to my job and this industry.”
Of course some leadership principles remain constant across industries. “My mentor, our president John Saabas, always told me that responsibility is always taken, never given. That’s what I did in every role I’ve had, “says Makris. The protégé studies leadership from others outside of senior in-house ranks. For example, she turns to military ranks for inspiration and instruction. “I went to Thayer Leader Development Group at West Point and studied how the army develops leaders. They keep it simple; they clearly communicate a mission and then tell people to go do it…they tell them the ‘what’ and ‘why’ and let the team figure out the ‘how.’ In the military the ‘follow me’ guy doesn’t always come back; if he falls then everybody needs the capability to step up and complete the mission. We call that empowerment: Everybody has to be a leader. I empower my team around me to figure out how to do things. I set the direction we are going and our destination, and trust them to find out how to get there.”
Growth in Tough Times
That team around Makris is growing. “Every year companies in our industry say, ‘things will pick up this year.’ Instead of being defensive and pulling in, tough and challenging times spark innovation for us. While others are laying off, we’re hiring in areas where we need to continue investing.” Rising and growing through challenges is a longstanding trait that Makris has done in her personal past. It’s telling that she considers her greatest career accomplishment not currently reaching the executive ranks of a global aviation leader, but persisting and preparing to rise in a way that only a minority can claim in a male-dominated industry. “I would have to say that earning my MBA while going to school full time and (at the John Molson School of Business she was class president) pregnant with my first child and working in highly demanding roles while balancing everything at that stage of my life and giving every area 100 percent was perhaps my greatest career accomplishment. Hard work, and finding the balance that worked for me is what got me to where I am.”
That past-pregnant working grad student is currently a career mom who struggles, as many mothers with careers outside home do, to find balance for herself and also for her children. “When I’m out of the office, I like to balance my time with family; everybody does it differently. I like to get outside and be active with my kids.” That presents another challenge; her children are involved in winter indoor sports. “First I am a big hockey fan and go catch a Montreal Canadians game almost weekly. My kids are always on the ice as well, my daughter figure skates and my son plays hockey… I actually look forward to his games more than NHL games!” (That’s high praise for a place where Hockey Night in Canada is a must.)
That mom-career balance is increasingly hard. Currency rates, weakening economies, slower than expected growth, and falling oil prices have impacted Pratt & Whitney Canada’s international sales. “Some customers are struggling and some decisions to purchase have been delayed,” explains Makris. “That has definitely had a big impact across all market segments.” Somewhat surprisingly, Pratt & Whitney Canada has seen this downturn as an opportunity. “We are looking at total innovation and how we can take things to the next level. It seems counterintuitive, but in today’s challenged or softer market, our workload (at Pratt & Whitney Canada) ramps up. We’re busier than ever. My day is split between mentoring and coaching people, securing future growth and responding to customer proposals, which are going really well right now. I’m focused on interacting with our customers to integrate their needs with the next-gen aircraft the OEMS are designing. Next-gen doesn’t mean five or more years out, it means what does the customer need that we aren’t providing now. I oversee very strong teams working on our next engines.” Makris sees projected increases in U.S. military budgets as another opportunity for Pratt & Whitney Canada. “My team is working very closely with our military division, ensuring we are there as needs arise.”
Makris’ full days start early. “I get up at 5:00 and leave home at 6:15. I admit I eat my bagel in the car on the way to work, but I don’t feel bad about that because people in the cars next to me do the same thing.” Lest that seems like a lot of Canadians consuming carbs in cars, Makris uses what might be carb overload for others to fuel a healthy habit for herself. She explains, “I love to run, and put my earphones on—I almost said ‚Walkman,’ but nobody knows what that is anymore!—and create my own private space. It’s therapeutic.”
Since the bye-gone Walkman era, Makris has been creating a healthy space for herself and the corporate teams she has led along the way. It’s been a challenging, passionate, successful run!