Linda Parker Hudson, the first woman to ever head a major Pentagon supplier, disclosed today that she will retire from her position as President & Chief Executive Officer of BAE Systems, Inc. in the first quarter of 2014. The decision comes as a surprise — she is only 62 — and with her $13 billion company performing well appears to be motivated mainly by a desire to take a broader role in the public debate of national priorities. In recent years Hudson has become increasingly active in politics, espousing views on workplace diversity, science education and other issues that are often associated with the Democratic Party.
Hudson has been a pioneer in opening up the defense industry to women. Over a 40-year career, she was the first female manager at Ford Aerospace, the first female vice president of an operating company at Martin Marietta, and the first female corporate officer and president of a business unit at General Dynamics. Her elevation in 2009 to the role of Chief Executive Officer at BAE Systems, Inc. — the American subsidiary of British-based BAE Systems plc — was unprecedented in the history of the defense sector, putting her in charge of 40,000 employees who produce a diverse array of high-tech combat systems and services.
Hudson rose to the top of her male-dominated industry the old-fashioned way: by out-performing all her rivals and never turning down an assignment. She began her tenure as head of BAE Systems, Inc. by cutting costs and streamlining the organization in anticipation of softening Pentagon demand, a move that has allowed the company to continue generating strong returns despite the winding down of overseas wars. But Hudson has combined a hard-charging management style with a persistent emphasis on inclusiveness in the workplace, arguing that the company’s future competitiveness depended on embracing diversity.
Perhaps that view came naturally to a woman who had only one other female in her engineering program at the University of Florida (she graduated near the top of her class with a degree in systems engineering). What is more important, though, is that she later proved progressive management values were compatible with corporate performance — which raises the intriguing question of where she goes from here. She will continue serving on the Bank of America board of directors and the BAE Systems board, with more freedom now to join other boards. But her most passionate interest seems to lie in shaping federal policy concerning areas she deems critical to the nation’s future economic progress.
With a business resume few people in public life can match and a personality that I once described in Forbes as “a Southern girl who learned to be a street fighter,” Linda Hudson could become a formidable force in national politics. The record shows that she always succeeds at what she sets out to achieve.
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