When retiring Northrop Grumman chairman Ron Sugar was six years old, his parents packed the family into a old Ford and moved from Toronto to Los Angeles. The trip to California took nine days, and their destination was one of the toughest neighborhoods in South L.A. His parents, both high-school dropouts, operated a beauty salon, and Ron did his best to avoid the kids with knives who frequented school grounds.
These details appeared in a July 5 profile by Peter Pae that ran in the Los Angeles Times. Printing that profile around Independence Day was great timing, because Ron Sugar is by any measure an American success story. Raised by parents who had little going for them besides brains, discipline and a dream, he became his high-school valedictorian, then a summa cum laude graduate of UCLA’s electrical engineering program (his future wife, also a class valedictorian in high school, attended UCLA too). He has come a long way since those early days, but the direction has always been upward — fulfilling the prediction of high-school classmates who voted him “most likely to succeed.”
Ron Sugar announced on Wednesday that he will retire at the end of the year as chairman and chief executive officer of Northrop Grumman, the nation’s second biggest defense contractor. Heidi Wood of Morgan Stanley probably got it right when she said that the transition to successor Wes Bush would be seamless, because Bush is a Sugar protege and fellow wiz kid who has been groomed for the job since becoming chief operating officer three years ago. But we ought to pause for a moment to remember what an exceptional leader Dr. Sugar has been.
What really makes Sugar memorable isn’t his impressive analytic skills, or the fact that he greatly expanded his company’s business horizons, or even the fact that he grew annual revenues by $10 billion. It was the values that he brought to the executive suite as a scientist and corporate manager who really understood his people and his products. Many big companies today, including some in the defense sector, are run by people who don’t really care about their employees and don’t really comprehend their products. Ron Sugar isn’t like that: although he is really, really good with numbers, he understands the human and material facets of his enterprise in a way that even MIT-graduate Bush will have a hard time matching.
Predecessor Kent Kresa may have put together the pieces that we now call Northrop Grumman, but it was Ron Sugar who transformed them into an integrated technology powerhouse — probably the only company in the sector that will be able to compete as an equal with industry leader Lockheed Martin in the years ahead. Many of his own employees don’t fully understand what Sugar has achieved, or how vital it will be to the company’s continued success in the difficult market conditions that lie ahead. Northrop is losing a rare intellect and a real friend of workers — a leader who never forgot his roots, and loved the defense business.
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