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James A. Bell Biography


Corporate executive

Bell, James A., photograph. AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.

Growing up in the working-class black community of south central Los Angeles, James Bell might have believed that the greatest success he could hope for was to land a steady job with the Post Office, like his father. Yet Bell recognized that an opportunity existed for another kind of future, with more rewarding work and room for advancement. He became one of the few young men from his neighborhood to graduate from college, and went on to positions of increasing responsibility in the business world. After almost thirty years working in the world of business finance, he was promoted to one of the top jobs in a major corporation when he became chief financial officer with aerospace giant The Boeing Company. Then, early in 2005, Bell was appointed interim president and chief executive officer when a scandal took down his predecessor. Despite his ever-increasing business responsibilities, Bell placed great importance on another responsibility of success: supporting and encouraging other African Americans seeking business careers.

Bell was born in Los Angeles on June 4, 1948. His parents, Mamie and Clyde Bell, had come from Oklahoma, seeking the wider opportunities that California seemed to offer African Americans. Clyde Bell worked for the Post Office, and Mamie was a clerk for the County of Los Angeles. They lived and raised their family in the black neighborhood called South Central. Young James spent his youth in the security of his close-knit extended family, enjoying family trips to the park or beach and playing football and baseball with friends.

Bell was an avid reader who liked school and did well in his studies. One of his elementary school teachers, an African American named Mr. Kelly, gave Bell special encouragement by assuring his young black students that they could accomplish anything if they worked hard and had confidence in themselves.

During Bell's junior year of high school in 1965, the arrest of a black driver by California Highway Patrol officers sparked five days of intense rioting in Watts, a black neighborhood in Los Angeles. The riots went on for six days and, when they were over, thirty-four people were killed and hundreds injured. The neighborhood was devastated by fires set by rioters. Though the civil rights movement had previously seemed far away to a schoolboy in southern California, the Watts riots brought the anger and bitterness of the black community very close to James Bell. Though he recognized the feelings of frustration and despair that lay behind the rioters, he felt that they had only succeeded in burning down their own neighborhood. He determined to look for more constructive approaches to change in his own life.

Another major influence in Bell's early life came when he was elected to the office of student body president during his senior year of high school. As part of the student government, he participated in student council events with other schools, where he met students whose experience and expectations were quite different from his own. For the first time, Bell was exposed to other students who assumed they would attend college and go on to rewarding careers. In his own neighborhood, many young African Americans assumed that the best career they could hope for was a secure job. Bell, however, had done a variety of part-time jobs, from cleaning players' shoes at the golf course, to cleaning office buildings, to working in the Post Office, and he had not enjoyed them. Not wanting to settle for a secure but boring job that offered little hope of advancement, James Bell decided to go to college.

His grades were good enough to earn him a partial scholarship to California State University at Los Angeles. The scholarship paid his tuition for the first year, and Bell continued to work to pay for the rest of his college education. He chose accounting as his major, because he felt it was a concrete business skill that would allow him to get a good job upon graduation.

During his senior year of college, the Rockwell International Corporation sent recruiters to the CSU campus. Based in southern California, Rockwell was a large corporation with many sections, including an aerospace and defense division. After speaking to the recruiters, Bell went to Rockwell to explore the possibility of employment, though he did not plan to apply for a job. To Bell's surprise Rockwell offered him a position in their Atomics International Accounting Organization, and he joined the company in 1972.

His first year at Rockwell did not go smoothly. Bell found it difficult to make the transition from the life of a student to a stressful business career. His first performance appraisal was full of negative feedback about his work. However, some of his more experienced supervisors and co-workers took an interest in the young accountant, and helped him adjust to his new career. With the advice and support of these mentors, Bell made an important change in his attitude. Rather than merely going to work each day, he began to pursue a career.

Bell worked at Rockwell for twenty-four years. He performed various functions in the accounting department, including work with accounting, corporate audits, cost policy making, and cost estimating. Beginning in 1984, he supervised the team responsible for combining the financial activities of the Atomics International and Rocketdyne Divisions of the Rockwell Corporation.

In 1996, the Boeing Company bought the aerospace and defense division of Rockwell. Boeing, based in Seattle and Chicago, had expanded from its roots as an airplane manufacturer into a large, multi-faceted corporation. Bell moved smoothly into the new company, becoming vice president of contracts and pricing. He continued to advance his career at Boeing, combining his financial expertise with excellent management skills. When he became corporate controller in 2000, he was also required to develop company processes for following the many rules about how businesses must report their finances to the government.

At a Glance …

Born James Aaron Bell on June 4, 1948, in Los Angeles, California; married Mary Howell August 22, 1981; two children: Sean and Champagne. Education: California State University at Los Angeles, BA, accounting, 1971.

Career: Rockwell International Corporation, Atomics International Accounting Organization, accounting, corporate audit, cost policy, and cost estimating, 1972-86, director of accounting, 1986-92; Rockwell International Corporation, Space Station Electric Power System Program, director of business management, 1992-96; Boeing Company, vice president of contracts and pricing, 1996-2000, senior vice president of finance and corporate controller, 2000-03, acting chief financial officer, 2003-04, executive vice president and chief financial officer, 2004-05, interim president and chief executive officer, 2005–.

Selected Memberships: Los Angeles Urban League; Urban League of Chicago; New Leaders for New Schools; Joffrey Ballet; World Business Chicago.

Addresses: Office—Boeing World Headquarters, 100 N. Riverside, Chicago, IL 60606.

In 2003 Bell was promoted to acting chief financial officer at Boeing when a scandal involving then-CFO Mike Sears rocked the company. Bell's performance was so strong—and the trust in him so complete—that in 2004 the position was made permanent. Boeing president and chief executive officer Harry Stonecipher spoke of Bell's qualifications in a much-quoted press release from the Boeing Web site, "James Bell is a superior financial leader," Stonecipher said. "He is a proven, highly skilled manager who has intimate knowledge of our strategy and champions fiscal transparency. James will be a key member of our leadership team."

Bell was lifted even higher in the company early in 2005, when yet another scandal rocked the company. Early in March, the corporate board asked for the resignation of Harry Stonecipher when it was discovered that he had had an adulterous relationship with a Boeing executive, thus violating the company's code of conduct. Bell was immediately named interim president and chief executive officer. It was not immediately known how soon the board expected to make a permanent appointment.

In addition to advancing his executive career, Bell has continued to value his relations with his own close-knit family. He places great importance on education for young African Americans and works with an organization called New Leaders for New Schools to help train and develop more black school principals. He also works as a mentor within the Boeing organization, encouraging blacks in their career development, much as he was encouraged during his early years at Rockwell.



Black Enterprise, April 2004.

Chicago Tribune, January 7, 2004.

Seattle Times, November 25, 2003; January 7, 2004; March 7, 2005; March 8, 2005.


"Biographies: James A. Bell," Boeing, www.boeing.com/companyoffices/aboutus/execprofiles/bell.html (March 7, 2005).

"Boeing Names James Bell Chief Financial Officer," Boeing, www.boeing.com/news/releases/2004/q1/nr_040106a.html (December 15, 2004).


Information for this profile was obtained through an interview with James Bell on December 15, 2004.

—Tina Gianoulis

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