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Northrop Grumman's Ronald Sugar: Quietly in command

The former whiz kid from South Los Angeles often shuns the limelight. 'If you met him on the street, you'd never know he runs one of the world's largest defense companies,' a Wall Street analyst says.

July 05, 2009|Peter Pae

Much like Northrop Grumman Corp.'s stealthy B-2 bomber, the company's chief executive has flown under the radar for most of his career overseeing the development of many of the nation's top-secret weapons.

Unassuming and devoid of the cigar-chomping flamboyance that distinguished aerospace executives in the past, Ronald Sugar -- a former whiz kid from South Los Angeles -- often shuns the limelight.

Yet few in aerospace are as influential to the nation's defense and security.

"If you met him on the street, you'd never know he runs one of the world's largest defense companies," said Paul H. Nisbet, who has been a Wall Street analyst following the aerospace industry since the 1970s. "He is not a silver-spoon executive."

Sugar is in charge of a company with 120,000 employees scattered across 50 states and 25 countries developing and building weapons and technologies that touch virtually every aspect of U.S. military and intelligence operations. It is one of Southern California's largest private employers, with 27,000 workers in the region.

Its satellites keep an eye on North Korean missile silos as its robotic planes hover over Afghanistan looking for Taliban operatives. Its massive aircraft carriers project America's military power overseas as its nuclear-powered submarines covertly roam under the sea. In super-secret hideaways, its technologies eavesdrop on suspected terrorists and its computer networks help run federal agencies.

In the industry's heyday, such a company would have been headed by larger-than-life figures such as billionaire Howard Hughes or firebrands such as Litton Industries' Charles "Tex" Thornton.

But these days Sugar -- who looks like a banker, with balding head and eyeglasses -- is the epitome of the modern-day aerospace executive, analysts said.

"He is subdued and thoughtful rather than outspoken and colorful," said Loren Thompson, a longtime defense policy analyst for the Lexington Institute. "The industry has had its fill of cowboys. What it needs now are calm, analytical people, and Sugar fits that mode."

Northrop, like other defense firms, is facing significant turbulence after nearly a decade of growth. Wall Street is mixed on whether Sugar can steer the company through what is expected to be a protracted slowdown in Pentagon spending. Analysts said his legacy might hinge on how well Northrop adjusts to new realities of shrinking defense budgets.

Sugar, 60, oversees the $34-billion defense empire from a Century City high-rise that offers a sweeping view of L.A.

Looking out toward Los Angeles International Airport, he can make out Northrop's sprawling F/A-18 fighter-jet plant in El Segundo. Just to the south, there is the company's Space Park in Redondo Beach, where his engineers work in secrecy developing spy satellites.

From his large yet sparsely decorated office, Sugar also has an unobstructed view of his past and a reminder of how far he has come. In the hazy distance, Sugar can make out the South Los Angeles neighborhood where he grew up helping his parents run a beauty salon. In the hills at the opposite end is his current home in Bel-Air.

Publicity shy, Sugar rarely talks about growing up in one of Los Angeles' tougher neighborhoods.

Born in Toronto, Sugar moved with his family to Los Angeles in 1954. His parents, both high school dropouts from Canada, ran the beauty shop, near Western Avenue and Century Boulevard, after driving to California in an old Ford sedan. It took nine days, recalled Sugar, who was barely 6 at the time.

Although his parents never graduated from high school, having had to work because of the Great Depression, Sugar said he grew up in an intellectually stimulating household. His father excelled in math and always had the desire to be an engineer but "never had the educational opportunity to do it."

When Sugar turned 12 and was about to begin high school, the family moved to a home a few blocks from Northrop's aircraft-making factory on Crenshaw Boulevard

The neighborhood was "tough," Sugar said. Though gunfights were rare, teens wielding knives were not unusual, he said.

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The smartest kid

But among his classmates at Leuzinger High School, there was little doubt that Sugar would go far, though few would know how far.

"He was definitely the brightest person around," said Linda Lisiecki, a classmate who was in many of the "gifted" classes with Sugar.

He was also somewhat of an oddity. Baby-faced and nearly three years younger than most of his classmates, Sugar often found himself trying to talk his way out of scuffles with physically larger classmates.

Report-card days were the worst, Sugar recalled. "The one thing that you don't want to do is have someone pull your report card out of your pocket and find you had straight A's."

He often tried running away, but, Sugar said, "I quickly discovered I wasn't a fast runner."

Sugar said being roughed up provided an invaluable experience that became useful as he climbed up the corporate ladder.

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