As CEO of Boeing, Jim McNerney has seen the best and the worst of the commercial-plane business. Through it all, he has kept Boeing flying through the type of turbulence few other CEOs have had to encounter. From a nasty and damaging strike in 2009 to the grounding of the 787 Dreamliner last year, McNerney has not only managed to lift Boeing (and its stock) to record heights, he has also positioned the company for an extended run of profitability.
Skeptics will roll their eyes and say, "Well sure, Boeing really only has one major competitor in Airbus, who couldn't make money at Boeing?"
The skeptics are wrong. Flat out wrong.
McNerney, in my opinion, is a shoo-in to make the final 25 for CNBC's list of the top 25 business leaders over the last 25 years.
(Read more: Who mattered—and who didn't—in the last 25 years)
Righting the ship
Think back to what Boeing looked like in 2005 when Jim McNerney was named CEO. It was a mess — and that's being kind. The previous CEO was canned after it came out that he was having an affair with a Boeing employee. The CEO before him? He was sacked after a scandal involving an executive who was given a job in exchange for steering a lucrative defense contract to Boeing.
Boeing was the punch line for corporate jokes.
Even worse, its commercial-plane business was looking tired and lagging when compared to Airbus.
McNerney slowly and quietly changed that. Ethics became a priority as he set out to recharge Boeing's batteries on both the defense and commercial sides of the business.
Since then, Boeing has not only kept its nose clean, it has become a business case study for other companies — especially older ones.
(Read more: Musk, Mulally to steer auto industry to new paths)
Fixing the Dreamliner
McNerney didn't launch the 787 Dreamliner, but he has been the man in charge of making the Dreamliner go from the drawing board to the skies. It hasn't been easy, which may be the ultimate understatement.
But to appreciate how impressive the task of getting the Dreamliner built and flying is, you need to understand it is dramatically different than anything Boeing has previously manufactured—from its carbon fiber composite fuselage to advanced electronics and lithium-ion batteries.
McNerney will be the first to admit Boeing may have been too ambitious with certain aspects of the Dreamliner. That said, he took the hits when the 787 was grounded in early 2013. Through it all, he was adamant Boeing would not only fix the Dreamliner, but that it would also keep the plane on course to become a thriving and (eventually) profitable model.
Clear for takeoff
One other factor plays into my belief that McNerney should be among the CNBC top 25: When he steps down as CEO (likely in the middle of this year), he will leave Boeing in far better shape than it was when he took over. More importantly, Boeing is primed to soar even higher over the next ten years.
The commercial-plane business has a record backlog of orders, a new labor contract with the International Association of Machinists that guarantees labor peace through 2024, and new models (737MAX and 777X) in the pipeline to ensure a steadily growing delivery schedule.
(Read more: In clash of consumer-goods titans, the standouts)
When was the last time Boeing's future looked this bright? You probably have to go back to the early 70's.
Nothing is guaranteed with a company the size of Boeing, but in my opinion, Jim McNerney has set this company on a course for long-term profitability and success.
At the same time, he's been a driving force changing how airplanes are built and how the industry looks at this next generation of planes.