Thomas V. Jones: Industry Renaissance Man

Northrop Grumman Heritage: Tom Jones
Thomas V. (Tom) Jones Thomas V. (Tom) Jones
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The four decades comprising the Cold War were a golden age when aviation gave way to aerospace, and when that new industry was illuminated by the lights of visionaries, innovators, and leaders of extraordinary talent. However, only a very few were true renaissance men. Thomas Jones was one. He did it all.

Southern California born and bred, and Stanford educated, Jones took his engineering degree to the Douglas Aircraft Company during WWII. Following the war, he worked in Brazil, helping establish that country’s civil aviation system. He arrived at the RAND Corporation in 1951, where he wrote an influential report on U.S. Air Force transport options. Two years later, he joined the Northrop Corporation and by 1959, Jones was CEO.

In that year, the company’s fortunes were uncertain, its prospects flat. Often dismissed as a company that produced great ideas that went nowhere, Jones supplied the Northrop Corporation with the piece it had been missing: the ability to link great ideas to customer needs within a disciplined business strategy. Amidst the industry’s collection of brilliant technicians, Jones was the consummate businessman.

One of his first major achievements concerned a good but unremarkable Air Force training jet, the Northrop T-38. Where some consigned the aircraft to a marketing dead end, Jones saw only sales potential. Funding and developing the project independently, Jones turned the trainer into a basic, low-tech, low-cost fighter, the F-5. He sold early models for less than a million dollars a copy. And sell them, he did – nearly 4,000 of them to many allied nations over a quarter century.

Tom Jones aboard a T-38A Talon Tom Jones aboard a T-38A Talon
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Internally funded development projects are inherently risky. But Jones was a risk-taker. He would follow the F-5 achievement with another internal development project, again enabled by business and management initiatives that were as innovative as the program’s technology: Northrop and Boeing would partner to build Northrop’s design for the F/A-18 Hornet.

And then came the B-2.

The Air Force’s requirements for their new strategic bomber were so advanced, so challenging, that many of the required technologies did not even exist as the program commenced. At the time, it was the largest Air Force contract ever let. Winning it would require a force of personality as large as the contract itself. Jones and Northrop won the contract and with its successful execution, the company ascended to the top tier of defense contractors.

By the early 80s, Jones had built a record composed of years of achievement, effective leadership, risks validated, and, it must be said, controversies – some serious enough to damage his reputation, and that of the company he led, for many years.

Nevertheless, in his time remaining at the helm, Jones would perform perhaps his most useful service to the Northrop Corporation and his country. He would pilot Northrop toward his vision of the future – a future marked by unmanned technology, stealth and intelligence. By the time of his retirement in 1990, Northrop’s portfolio of strengths and differentiators was well on its way to taking the form we know today.

Engineer; business leader; salesman; risk-taker; geostrategic tea leaf-reader; industry titan. And in his retirement, an accomplished vintner. He performed all these very different functions with equal aplomb. Tom Jones was the industry’s Renaissance man.

Related stories honoring Mr. Jones:

In Memoriam: Thomas Jones, Former Chairman, Chief Executive of Northrop Corp.

Former Northrop CEO Thomas V. Jones Dies at 93 (Los Angeles Times)

Thomas V. Jones Helped Northrop Take Off (The Wall Street Journal)