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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

Northrop's growth has come while other defense contractors have been embroiled in controversy and scandals. The company, for the most part, seems to have avoided major ethical breaches. Still, ethical conduct has been one of Sugar's main management concerns. Senior managers are required to take ethics classes once a year.

Steven Sample, president of USC, where Sugar has been a trustee since 2003, said the Bruin alumnus is highly respected even among die-hard Trojans.

"I really like the person and I think he has very high ethical standards," Sample said. "You always run the risk of being embarrassed by someone who goes off in an unethical direction. I can't imagine Ron Sugar doing that."

A registered Republican, Sugar has given more in campaign contributions to Democrats, reflecting the cold calculation that defense spending decisions can depend on politicians on both sides. His strongest trait has been a personable one-on-one management style that he has tried to convey to his managers, according to former and current employees.

In a recent annual gathering of several hundred Northrop managers, Sugar walked into the ballroom and without explanation began playing the piano. After playing a classical piece for about five minutes, he got up and began talking about how he enjoyed playing the piano and shared other personal details.

"It was very leveling," said Barry Z. Pozner, dean of the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University and co-author of "A Leader's Legacy," a management book that cites Sugar. "People would later come up to him and have a personal conversation. It was another way to get connected with people."

The point of the exercise, Sugar would say, "is that if people were going to follow you, they need to know more about you than the fact that you are their boss. They need to know your hopes, dreams, talents and expectations."

Leadership, Sugar said, "is personal."




A Northrop chronology

Northrop Grumman Corp., headquartered in Century City, is a conglomeration of nearly two dozen defense and aerospace companies, including TRW, Litton and Westinghouse -- most of them acquired in the last two decades.

1939: John K. "Jack" Northrop forms a namesake military-aircraft-making company in Hawthorne. He builds its first aircraft, the N-3PB patrol bomber, in 1940.

1946: Jack Northrop designs and builds the first XB-35 flying wing, which would be the basis for the development of the radar-evading B-2 stealth bomber more than 40 years later.

1959: The first Northrop F-5 fighter jet takes flight.

1989: The first radar-evading bomber, the B-2, is secretly developed in Hawthorne and assembled in Palmdale.

1994: Northrop acquires Grumman Corp., maker of the F-6F Hellcat and the F-14 Tomcat fighter jet.

1996: Northrop buys Westinghouse Electric Corp.'s defense and electronics business.

1997: Logicon Corp., developer of an automated mail-sorting system for the U.S. Postal Service, is acquired.

1999: Northrop buys Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical, developer of the high-altitude, long-endurance Global Hawk unmanned reconnaissance and surveillance plane.

2001: Litton Industries, a developer of aircraft navigation systems and a military shipbuilder, is acquired.

2001: Northrop buys Newport News Shipbuilding, a maker of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines.

2002: Northrop acquires TRW's aerospace business, which makes satellites, space telescopes and laser weapons.

2008: Northrop's annual revenue grows to $34 billion from $3 billion a decade before. The company is now the nation's second-largest defense contractor, after Lockheed Martin Corp.

-- Peter Pae


Ronald Sugar

Title: Chairman and chief executive, Northrop Grumman Corp.

Salary: $1.5 million; $5.5 million in restricted stock awards (2008)

Born: July 30, 1948, in Toronto. Has lived in Los Angeles since 1954.

Residence: Bel-Air

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