On Feb. 15, Clay Presley, the president and CEO of Carolina Pad, visited the Evening MBA program at Wake Forest University to discuss how he turned the Charlotte business around. He also shared his experience as one of the 155 passengers aboard the US Airways Airbus that plunged into the Hudson River just over a year ago.
This is an exclusive two-part series, beginning with Presley’s firsthand account of the Jan. 14, 2009, emergency landing and how it impacted and changed his professional perspective on topics such as the economy and succession planning.
“The initial thrust of acceleration was like any other flight,” Presley began. “But 90 seconds into takeoff there was this boom and the plane just stopped.”
Initially passengers were quiet, looking around, before the smell of smoking geese (later determined as the cause of the engine failure) filled the cabin. “I heard a muffled sound,” he added. Chesley Sullenberger III, the pilot who would later be known as Sully, told passengers to brace for impact, though the plane never experienced any detectable jerking.
“I took out my Blackberry and quickly emailed my wife to tell her that I loved her,” Presley said. “It only took a second to realize what was really important in life. The material things were so far removed from my mind.”
Impact delivered a series of “bam” sounds accompanied with a hit that resembled “a very hard car accident” as the lights went out. Presley, who had forgotten to put on a floatation device managed to find his way out of the cabin, inching his way out to the tip of a very slippery wing. Others followed, with some diving in the near-freezing water and others trying like Presley to balance themselves as the plane drifted across the Hudson. “Always read the safety card,” he recalled.
Presley followed this account by sharing his takeaways from the experience. “I dealt with conflicting feelings of gratitude and fear,” he said. Pausing briefly, he added: “It really is a feeling that’s beyond fear.”
In the past year, Presley has been able to see Sully, including a meeting in San Francisco. The executive had nothing but praise for the pilot, not only for his handling of the incident but for his agenda and poise in the year that followed. “Sully told me to keep one thing in mind,” Presley said. “This attention will only last for a limited time, so we must do all the good that we can in the time we are given.”
How has the experience changed Presley as a CEO? “I am more candid in my evaluations of people,” he said, realizing that it benefits the company and the employee to provide a candid assessment of performance. “After I got back, I also realized the need for succession planning,” he said in response to a question. “That is going on right now.”
Clay Presley with Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger in a photo found at the Charlotte Talks blog.