Leroy Grumman was an unlikely player in a game dominated by barnstormers and daredevils, the jaunty young men with pencil mustaches who built America’s aviation industry right after World War I.
Stoop-shouldered and soft-spoken, Grumman was as shy as he was inseparable from the briar pipe he seemed to hide behind.
His experience as a military pilot had left no apparent mark. “He was very, very reticent,” his flight instructor said. “Most of the guys became tougher than hell after they learned to fly. Grumman didn’t.”
No matter. Grumman had partners who mastered swagger. He focused on designing aircraft so reliable that many models flew largely unchanged through their life span, winning his Long Island plant the nickname Grumman Iron Works.
As Vice Adm. John McCain Sr. put it during World War II: “The name Grumman on a plane is like sterling on silver.”
Over four decades, Grumman would build his firm from 16 employees into one of the nation’s largest defense contractors, with divisions that manufactured prop planes, jet aircraft, rockets, even canoes and delivery trucks.
On July 21, 1969, the world watched tensely as his aeronautic magnum opus delivered Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon.
Northrop Grumman (NOC) is still on the rise, with $24.4 billion in sales last year and a stock that has taken flight by 290% since 2009.
Leroy Randle Grumman (1895-1982) was born in Huntington, N.Y., the son of a carriage-shop owner. Roy, as he preferred to be called, had a clear interest in the infant aviation industry by the time he finished high school, telling classmates, “the final perfection of the airplane” would be one of man’s greatest triumphs.
Grumman graduated with an engineering degree from Cornell University in 1916 and applied to the U.S. Navy flight program just as America entered World War I.
He served as a flight instructor and test pilot, and, at war’s end in 1918, took a job at aviation pioneer Grover Loening’s New York City factory.
Grumman became fast friends with another Loening employee, Jake Swirbul, an organizational whiz with whom he shared a work ethic and love of flight.
When the Loening operation announced a move to Pennsylvania in 1929, the pals took off on their own. Grumman Aeronautical Engineering opened in a former car dealership in the Long Island hamlet of Baldwin on Jan. 2, 1930, with Grumman as chairman and president.
Initially, the firm specialized in repairing Loening aircraft, but Grumman soon used his military contacts to land work building pontoons for Navy planes and then a contract for a bi-winged fighter, the first with retractable landing gear.
Still, times were tough. The company ran out of cash one week and sent workers home without pay.
Early on, the firm could afford test-flight insurance only by the hour, and company lore suggests employees were encouraged to lug in scrap metal from the roadside.
While other companies invested in sophisticated inventory systems, Grumman piled parts into spent oil drums, each marked with a red line a few inches from the bottom. “When it gets to here,” a sign advised workers, “call Joe.”
But it was just the kind of company Grumman wanted: small, paternalistic and, if all went well, profitable. In that order.
Despite its founder’s misgivings, the firm grew steadily, moving to larger quarters in 1931, then again the next year and once more in 1937. Grumman still insisted that the firm should be kept lean and nimble, with no more than 250 workers. An accountant was finally dispatched to tell the boss that the staff had reached 256.
Even so, Grumman ruled in a folksy, feet-on-the-desk, door-always-open style, although Swirbul did most of what he called the “mollycoddling” of employees.
As a result, workers referred to Swirbul as Jake, but Grumman was always Mr. Grumman.
Production soared in 1939 as France and England placed orders for Grumman’s F-4F Wildcat, a stubby, teardrop-shaped fighter that could reach 330 mph.
By 1943, with America in the WWII fight, the Grumman workforce had ballooned from a prewar 700 to more than 25,000, and the company was the primary supplier of aircraft to the Allies.
Giving ‘Em Hell
The firm’s next fighter model, the faster F-6 Hellcat, would rule the skies in the Pacific theater, where it was credited with destroying two-thirds of all Japanese planes.
The plane’s speed and maneuverability were part of the success story, but sheer quantity played an important role as well. At peak production, the company was cranking out over 600 aircraft a month, and Grumman’s unique folding wing design, which he’d worked out using an eraser and two paper clips, let U.S. aircraft carriers double the number of planes on board.
With Grumman stationed at the drafting table, Swirbul took over the morale effort, organizing activities for workers such as ice-cream socials, band performances and pingpong tournaments. At one point, the firm had over 40 softball teams, with Grumman and other executives playing alongside the most junior riveters.
“Grumman was like Michelangelo, and Swirbul was the guy who cut the marble for him,” one executive said. “Jake knew how to give the schmaltz to the people.”
Sales jumped from $4 million in 1940 to $400 million in 1943, with a percentage going to workers as bonuses. As a result, the company’s labor turnover was half that of other wartime manufacturers, and its profit more than double.
As World War II ended in 1945, Grumman faced one of his greatest engineering challenges — reducing the staff by 20,000, of which only 126 had expressed any interest in leaving. His solution: Fire everyone, then rehire 5,000 of the most talented and longest tenured. The company pulled it off in 10 days.
Grumman stepped down as president in 1946 after losing much of his eyesight from an allergic reaction to a penicillin shot. But he continued on as chairman for 20 more years, pushing the firm into civilian products that included aluminum canoes, delivery vans and Gulfstream prop planes and jets.
Government work remained the firm’s mainstay, with Grumman winning contracts to produce Navy jets and reconnaissance planes, Postal Service vans and, in 1962, NASA’s lunar excursion module.
“None of the industry founders got in it for the military business, but none ever turned away from weaponry,” Wayne Biddle , a Johns Hopkins professor and author of “Barons of the Sky,” told IBD. “They all cherished a necessarily primitive dream of civilian aviation — an airplane in every garage — that turned out to be technically and economically infeasible. So the government became their most reliable customer, with commercial aviation a perennial roller coaster.”
Swirbul died from colon cancer in 1960, and Grumman went it alone for an additional six years before relinquishing the chairman’s seat, although he remained a director until 1972. The Grumman workforce at that point had swelled to 35,000, surpassing World War II levels and making the company easily Long Island’s largest employer.
“Everyone talks about Grumman being a big family, and it was,” said Mike Lisa, a 37-year company veteran. “There were the top executives, of course, but from the vice presidents down, it was like everyone was an equal on the same playing field. That changed after Leroy retired and passed, but in those days it was a fantastic place to work. Just a great, great place.”
Grumman split his retirement between Florida and New York with his wife, Rose, whom he’d married in 1921. They had four children. Grumman’s eyesight continued to fail, however, and by 1980, he was blind.
Two years later, after what was described as a long illness, he died at age 87.
Grumman missed having to witness the decline of the firm he founded, which struggled amid Pentagon cutbacks after the Cold War and sold out to Northrop in 1994, a merger that many defense experts believed should have yielded a Grumman Northrop.
It was the confirmation of Grumman’s greatest fear, according to his widow. Roy’s company, Rose Grumman said, had simply “got too big.”
Said Biddle: “The lucrative products that epitomized the industry after Leroy Grumman left it would have disgusted him, I think. And by the end of his life, the best young engineers weren’t going into aerospace, which was perceived as old-fashioned and corrupt. They were heading for Silicon Valley.”
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