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Era Ends as Jones Exits Top Post at Northrop Corp. : Aerospace: In his 30 years as chief executive he led the company from relative obscurity to a place as a major military prime contractor.

January 01, 1990|RALPH VARTABEDIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The last of the aerospace industry Titans, the men who became synonymous with their corporations and the aircraft they produced, is gone with the departure of Thomas V. Jones as chief executive of Northrop Corp.

Jones, who at Northrop's helm for 30 years came to personify the maverick aerospace company and who survived an astonishing succession of personal controversies, will remain its chairman but will retire today as an employee of the company.

In recent weeks, the aerospace industry has rushed to give Jones several major awards for his career accomplishments, adding to the long list of recognitions that he has received as an aviation leader. The City of Hawthorne even named a park for him.

But Jones is stepping down from his post with the company still under indictment on criminal charges and facing several investigations by federal grand juries in Los Angeles and elsewhere. And although he undoubtedly built Northrop into a leading prime contractor, the success of his legacy depends on the outcome of several risky programs.

"They don't make them like Jones anymore," said Paine Webber aerospace analyst Joseph Campbell. "Jones is the last of the old guard. It is the passing of an era--rightfully so."

Jones declined to be interviewed for this story. A Northrop spokesman said Jones was so busy that he had no time to talk.

Jones came from a time when aerospace chiefs made gutsy big gambles on new technology, and Jones made some of the biggest wagers in history. He bet $1.2 billion of shareholder money on the F-20 jet fighter during the 1980s and failed to sell one. But he also gambled big on the B-2 Stealth bomber program and turned the industry on its ear by winning.

In the process, he transformed a relatively small and flagging aerospace company in the late 1950s into one of the major military prime contractors in the nation.

"He took Northrop to a commanding position, at least technologically and in the engineering systems to exploit that technology," said Prudential-Bache analyst Paul Nisbet. "He has been a strong factor in bringing the company to where it is, though there is divided opinion over exactly where that is."

Jones is leaving with the company deeply in debt and with a market value of just $823 million, less than what two of his Stealth bombers cost. Northrop is teetering on the edge of tremendous success or virtual extinction, depending on the outcome of the B-2 and the advanced tactical fighter, or ATF, programs.

However those programs fare, Jones was a driving force behind the development of the F-5 jet fighter, the T-38 Air Force trainer and the Navy YF-17, which became the basis for the current F-18 jet fighter.

"He should be remembered as an enormously effective pioneer of new airplanes," said Thomas O. Paine, a former Northrop president. "He has an incredibly powerful personal determination to succeed against all odds."

But Jones had another side to his personality--a penchant for bold acts that often carried an unnecessary risk, according to another former colleague.

"Jones brings to mind that statement from Adm. Arleigh Burke: 'Give me a strong ship, for I intend to sail into harm's way.' Well, Tom liked to sail into harm's way," the former colleague said.

"Tom gets a big kick out of getting into trouble and then getting out," he added. "It is ingrained in his personality."

Jones got into more trouble and survived more often than probably any contemporary aerospace executive.

In 1975, Jones signed a consent agreement with the Securities and Exchange Commission in which he promised not to bribe any foreign officials. That was after the company had allegedly paid out $30 million to foreign officials in connection with international arms deals.

Northrop, under Jones, became the consummate international arms merchant, selling its F-5 jet fighter to nations from Norway to Saudi Arabia. Jones became close to the Shah of Iran and at one time proudly displayed a Persian rug at the company headquarters that was a gift from the Shah.

Jones also pleaded guilty to a federal felony count during the Watergate scandal in which he admitted to falsifying documents involving political contributions that were linked to a Richard Nixon slush fund.

In the aftermath, Jones agreed to form a board of directors that was constituted almost entirely of outsiders. But that board eventually became a source of support for him, backing such risky Jones ventures as the F-20, ATF and B-2.

"There isn't much more you can accomplish," said William Ballhaus, a board member who has known Jones throughout his career.

Robert L. J. Long, another board member, said Jones "made some significant contributions to the whole aerospace industry."

But Ballhaus and Long sought to dispel any doubt that Kent Kresa, the president and new chief executive, is in full control of the company.

"Mr. Jones' precise role will be determined by (Kresa)," Long said.

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