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Aerospace Legend Looks Back at the Time He Wasted -- in Meetings

Simon Ramo's 15th book deplores the hours of productivity lost in unneeded or poorly run business sessions.

November 06, 2005|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

During his 69 years in the aerospace industry, Simon Ramo figures he's attended more than 40,000 meetings -- an average of two or three per workday.

About 30,000 of those meetings could have been shorter or not held at all, he laments.

Ramo, the 92-year-old co-founder of TRW Inc., can never reclaim those thousands of "lost" hours, but he hopes he can save other managers from the same fate with his 15th book, published last month: "Meetings, Meetings, and More Meetings: Getting Things Done When People Are Involved."

"There are all kinds of gimmicks and books published about improving productivity, but half of our time is spent in meetings," he said in an interview. "If done better you can get the time spent in meetings down by half. Now we're talking about a big impact on productivity."

Half a century ago he co-founded TRW -- he was the "R" -- and then at the age of 89 brokered the sale of the company to Northrop Grumman Corp. He could easily sit on his laurels at his seven-acre estate in Beverly Hills, but 27 years after "retiring" from TRW's board he remains hard at work.

The book is the latest effort for a very active nonagenarian who continues to be a player in the aerospace industry.

Each workday, Ramo puts on a suit and tie and drives himself to his West Hollywood office at 8:30 a.m. He spends mornings working the phones, then goes to the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, where he'll have lunch with key industry officials.

Lunch often finds Ramo -- constantly interrupted by "Hi Si" greetings from fellow diners -- brainstorming grandiose ideas about aerospace with a young executive. On a recent day, Gerald S. Levey, dean of UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine, dropped by to congratulate Ramo on his latest book.

Ramo remains a senior consultant to Northrop and he meets regularly with Chief Executive Ronald D. Sugar to go over strategic ideas concerning the nation's third-biggest defense contractor.

"He is still very active and very well-connected," Sugar said. "I talk for about five minutes and then he gives me his thoughts on subjects that I was already thinking about or should be thinking about. What is remarkable is how clearly he understands what is going on."

A conversation with Ramo always has a specific purpose, acquaintances say. There is little small talk, even with longtime friends, and Ramo rarely deviates from a particular subject on his mind.

"Most of the time, he gets together with me ... when he thinks I ought to know something or I ought to meet someone," Levey said.

Ramo, who made his mark during the Cold War as the chief architect of America's intercontinental ballistic missile system, remains an avid student of international affairs.

In recent months he has been reading up on China, mainly because he feels the U.S. geopolitical focus will shift to the Pacific, as China's influence in the region grows both economically and militarily. The move will entail a buildup of nontraditional Navy ships, he said, declining to elaborate. Northrop is the nation's largest military shipbuilder.

He also foresees a major change in the Pentagon's approach to dealing with terrorism and nuclear proliferation, but feels that the military has done a poor job of spelling out its needs. That uncertainty will pose a big problem for the defense industry, he says.

Planning for the nation's defense is "more puzzling and more difficult than I have ever seen," Ramo said, adding that the situation also would create new opportunities for "creative and imaginative" defense companies.

Ramo's influence extends to decision makers in education, research and culture, Sugar said. Ramo has regular conversations with R. James Woolsey, a former CIA director and now a vice president of consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton Inc.; Steven Sample, president of USC; and John E. Bryson, chairman of Edison International.

The native of Salt Lake City was an aspiring concert violinist when he heard legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz. At that moment, Ramo decided not "to be a concert violinist." Ramo and Heifetz became friends years later and even played a duet together once at a dinner party.

Ramo changed his focus to science, earning a doctoral degree in electrical engineering from Caltech in 1936 at age 23. That year he began working on military-related programs for General Electric Co., where he also helped develop the electron microscope.

After World War II, Ramo moved to Hughes Aircraft Co., then Howard Hughes' airplane company in Culver City, to launch a division devoted to military electronics.

Ramo went to work for Hughes because he knew that one of the richest men at the time spent little time overseeing the company. When he did show up, Ramo recalled, Hughes would "toss off" detailed directions, for example, about what kind of seat covers to buy for company-owned Chevrolets.

"He was a nut," Ramo said.

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