“Give me just a minute, gotta fire off a couple more emails.”

It’s not uncommon to hear a statement like that in the modern workforce. But it’s not what you’d expect to hear from someone retiring in a week.

Bill Millhaem didn’t act like someone who was about to end a nearly 39-year career with GE Aviation. His office was still fully intact. His walls and bookshelves were still lined with memorabilia from his international travels with the company. The conference table in his office was still scattered with papers. And he was still firing off dozens of emails a day. No signs of an early checkout.

“It’ll be weird,” Millhaem said of his looming (and now actual) retirement. “I’m going to wake up that Monday morning, April Fools’ Day ironically enough, check my email, and there won’t be anything there. Then I’ll have to figure out what to do with the rest of my day.”

Thirty-eight years and ten months prior, Millhaem first stepped foot in Building 800 at GE Aviation’s headquarters in Evendale, Ohio, to attend new employee orientation. It was his first job after graduating from Miami University, less than an hour’s drive from Evendale.

“Up until I sent in the application, I didn’t know that GE made jet engines,” he said.

Above: Millhaem and his wife, Anne, stand in front of a GE90 on-wing in 2015. Top: A GE90 engine.

Despite that minor prerequisite being fulfilled a little late in the game, Millhaem was able to find his way at the expansive Evendale facility. His first role in the Manufacturing Development Program was designed for recent college graduates and early-career employees to gain an understanding of GE Aviation’s complex manufacturing and supply chain operations. For someone coming out of college not knowing exactly what he wanted to do with his career, it was a great opportunity for Millhaem to explore where a career in aviation might take him.

That exploration led to regular discussions with a J79 Project Manager to learn about a role described to Millhaem as the liaison between the product, GE, and the customer. It was 1985, and he thought that might be the perfect position for him. That chance meeting developed into multiple customer-facing commercial roles in commercial, marine and industrial engines over the ensuing years.

Then, in 2011, Millhaem found himself on the receiving end of a call he’d been waiting for all his career: How would he like to fill the liaison role as the general manager of the GE90 product line?

“I said, ‘Absolutely. No question,’” he recalled. “It was the job I had always wanted to have.”

Millhaem tours the GE Aviation Learning Center during a family day in the late-1990s with his sons, Mike and Brian.

So, what did it take to get to that role? According to Millhaem, there were three main lessons that carried him through nearly four decades with GE.

1. Never stop learning.

2. Remember that it’s a team sport.

3. Take your commitments seriously, especially to customers.

Never Stop Learning

As per any long career, there were difficult moments and seemingly insurmountable challenges. Millhaem distinctly remembers a few of the not-so-pleasant phone calls, awkward meetings, and late nights at the office searching for solutions to his customers’ problems. He specifically mentioned a tough meeting that came courtesy of one of his mentors, Lorraine Bolsinger, during a performance review. “She laid it all out there and said, ‘Here are the mistakes I think you’re making,’ and I kind of had my eyes opened. It was a real gut-punch,” he said.

But it was setbacks like that that ended up being most valuable for Millhaem throughout his career. He found a way to put an optimistic twist on his missteps. Every single day on the job, he said, presented another day to learn something new, to better himself, and to better his team.

Case in point, at the end of his story about his tough performance review, Millhaem imparted one more lesson. “It was one of the times in my career when I got very clear, actionable feedback on things that were inhibiting my career growth,” he said. “I took it to heart and did my best to address those shortcomings moving forward.”

That persistence and optimism paid off. He took the GE90 program, ironed out some challenging issues in his first two years at the helm, and handed it off to his team eight years later as one of the most reliable widebody aircraft engines on the market.

Millhaem tests out an Emirates 777 simulator, powered by GE90 engines.

 

Remember, It’s a Team Sport

The program’s success gave Millhaem the ability to focus on his successors—the current GE90 team. “It’s really been one of the most gratifying parts of my role to see the development of the people and how they contribute,” he said. “In my tenure, we’ve shifted to a lot more global roles to be closer to our customers, and even on a big, global team, we all work together every single day. It’s been amazing to see the team’s development, and I’m very happy with the direction the program is headed.”

From Cincinnati to Dubai to Singapore, Millhaem’s team represented a diverse group that was ready to tackle any problem. “[The team] has made me a huge advocate for GE’s efforts to build a more diverse workforce,” he said. “Seeing how we attacked problems from all different angles, it ought to be top-of-mind for every team. It’s made us so much better.”

During a visit to a GE Aviation engineering center in Bangalore, India, last year, Millhaem said he walked away amazed by the team’s eagerness to contribute to the broader GE90 team. The talent of that team was expected, but Millhaem’s mind, as it usually does, went into problem-solving mode. “I immediately started thinking about how we could get that team closer to the customer, and how we could get that team to grow with us,” he said. “They were very representative of the idea that this business is so much bigger than any one individual.”

Take Your Commitments Seriously, Especially to Customers

The most fulfilling aspect of Millhaem’s nearly four decades at GE Aviation has been the number of solid relationships he built with customers. Millhaem joked that in one of his first roles with the company, his “customer” was an inventory shelf in Building 800 at the Evendale facility. If the shelf was full of F101 engine front frames, the product he worked on, he knew the “customer” would be happy. That changed as his career progressed, moving from an inventory shelf to major airlines and aircraft manufacturers. As the customers grew in size, so did the importance of meeting the customers’ demands.

“We have a real impact on our customers’ operations—I’ve seen it in nearly every position I’ve had here,” he said. “When we’re on our game, it enables them to be on their game. That’s a major motivation for me.”

A few weeks before his final day, Millhaem received a hand-written note from a long-time customer. It read, “You never met a problem that you didn’t know how to go take on and help make us better.” To see something like that in writing from a customer, Millhaem said, was especially meaningful.

“That’s always been my goal with this role: help solve problems for the customer,” he said. “To see that we’ve achieved that is very rewarding for me as my career comes to a close.”

What’s Next

What does the career coming to a close look like?

“Well,” Millhaem paused. He grabbed the GE badge hanging from a lanyard around his neck and held it up. “I’ve owned a GE badge longer than anything I’ve owned in my life. Hard to tell how I’ll feel when I finally turn it in.”

The Millhaem legacy at GE will continue past Bill’s tenure; his son, Mike, is an engineer for GE Aviation in the same building as his father worked in before retiring. “Not many people get to work in a setting where their father can drop by their desk to check in at any moment,” Mike said. “It has been a lot of fun.” His other son, Brian, works in finance for GE Digital Technology in Atlanta.

Millhaem’s family is also adding a new member soon, with his first grandchild on the way. “My wife and I are looking forward to that phase of life,” Millhaem said with an excited grin.

Millhaem (center) and his sons, Mike (left) and Brian (right), stand in front of a GE90 fan blade on his retirement day.

“We’re also going to be doing some traveling. I’ve done a lot in my career, but it’s been work related. I’ve seen board rooms and airports all over the world,” he joked. Millhaem made sure that he booked the flights for their upcoming travels himself. Why? He wanted to make sure he and his wife would be on GE90-powered aircraft.

“Full circle,” he said.