Recalling Jim Turner, the man who saved EB

The forward hull section of a new Virginia class, fast-attack submarine sits on the waterfront at General Dynamics Electric Boat in 2012.  (Tim Cook/The Day)
The forward hull section of a new Virginia class, fast-attack submarine sits on the waterfront at General Dynamics Electric Boat in 2012. (Tim Cook/The Day)

It’s remarkable to me to watch as employment at Electric Boat surges toward Cold War levels. I still remember the time submarine building at the shipyard nearly ended in the early 1990s.

The Cold War, which placed a premium on nuclear submarines, had ended and President George H.W. Bush set out to cancel the shipyard’s only submarine work ahead, to build the Seawolf fast-attack submarine.

I was completing work on a reporting project to examine how defense regions like this one were coping with this historic threat to their business. My project focused on the possibilities of economic conversion, turning defense manufacturing to peaceful enterprises.

One of my last-minute trips for this project took me that summer to Falls Church, Va., to interview James E. Turner Jr., who recently had become executive vice president for marine and land systems at General Dynamics Corp. The defense contractor had just moved from its headquarters in St. Louis, Mo., to the outskirts of Washington to be closer to the political intrigue that was threatening the future of Electric Boat.

I already knew him during the time he headed EB and had become friends with him in my church in Mystic, where he and his wife Elizabeth were members.

He described to me his determination to preserve the submarine work at Electric Boat, to “stick to its knitting,” as he put it. The narrative didn’t exactly fit into my project, which had more to do with turning swords into plowshares. In his southern gentlemanly way, he suggested that that wasn’t an option for EB. He was fighting to keep the company in the submarine building business.

I didn’t foresee how right he would turn out to have been. His leadership and foresight, as Julia Bergman, The Day’s defense writer reported on in her story on Turner upon his death last month, very probably saved EB as a submarine builder. He positioned the shipyard to survive lean years and be ready to deliver submarines when new circumstances called for it.

Turner’s efforts on EB’s behalf had begun three years earlier when General Dynamics recruited him away from the Groton shipyard’s arch rival, Newport News Shipbuilding, where he served as executive vice president and had worked for 25 years.

When he arrived, EB was over its head in crises from bad management that had extended all the way to the top echelons of General Dynamics over more than a decade. The shipyard shuddered to the point of nearly collapsing under the weight of too many contracts to build attack submarines while supplying the new Trident class of strategic missile submarines. Defects and cost overruns had soured relations with the Navy. Meanwhile, labor and management were at war.

The man General Dynamics had brought in to clean up the mess, P. Takis Veliotis, made things vastly worse with his heavy-handed management techniques and, it turned out, his corrupt past involving kickbacks from suppliers while he had headed General Dynamics’ shipyard in Quincy, Mass.

Veliotis fled to his native Greece to escape federal corruption charges. During his time in charge, he drove out some of the shipyard’s most talented engineers and alienated the shipyard’s blue-collar labor force with his paternal and authoritarian reign. EB was in the middle of a bitter strike when Turner took over.

He turned the shipyard around.

Turner talked to the unions as equals and persuaded them of their common stake with management in protecting the future of the shipyard in the precarious years ahead. He involved them in management decisions. He brought labor peace and efficiency. And he made sure it “stuck to its knitting” under the difficult circumstances of cuts in defense spending.

The Pentagon understood it had a problem with the high cost of the Seawolf, which included costly modifications designed to avoid detection by enemy submarines among other things. But Seawolf was all the Navy had to keep EB at work and General Dynamics went ahead full throttle to keep it in production.

Turner and his colleagues in Falls Church brought onboard a powerful lobbying firm, Cassidy and Associates, to restore money to the budget for the Seawolf. Bill Clinton jumped on board the cause during his campaign for the presidency, and the issue won the support of U.S. Sen Daniel Inouye, of Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee and a friend of then U.S. Sen Christopher J. Dodd, who led the Connecticut congressional delegation in the Seawolf battle.

Congress wound up keeping the Seawolf alive, though only for as long as it took to develop a cheaper alternative, the Virginia class.

What could have been a fatal blow to EB turned out merely to be a brief setback thanks in no small measure to Jim Turner, who returned to EB as president and retired as chief operating officer of General Dynamics.

Under his influence, there is no doubt that EB grew stronger and better at what it did — build submarines. Thanks to him, Groton remained the submarine capital of the world

Greg Stone retired as deputy editorial page editor of The Day in 2007 and has taught journalism at the Avery Point branch of the University of Connecticut since 2002.

 

Dodd, Turner and Dela Cruz in May 1991
Dodd, Turner and Dela Cruz in May 1991

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