Jim Turner, credited with saving EB from closure, dies at 83
James E. Turner, Jr., a former president at Electric Boat who is widely credited with keeping the company afloat amidst downsizing and Navy cuts, died Dec. 27 at the age of 83.
"I think he'll be long remembered as one of the best leaders Electric Boat had during a difficult business time," said Peter Green, 77, of Waterford, who was director of purchasing under Turner.
Turner, who former colleagues described as a Southern gentleman, had been living in Suffolk, Va., the area in which he grew up, at the time of his death. The modest Methodist church where he was a lifelong member was packed Tuesday for his funeral service with attendees taking up multiple rooms. According to his obituary, Turner is survived by his wife of 63 years, Elizabeth Nelms Turner, and two sons, James Edwin Turner III and Steven L. Turner Sr.
A 1956 graduate of Virginia Tech, Turner was a top executive at EB's competitor Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia when he was wooed to come to Groton in the late summer of 1988.
At the time, the two companies were in a bitter rivalry for new submarine contracts, and the Metal Trades Council, which represented the majority of shipyard workers, was in the midst of a strike.
During his 2 ½ years at the helm, Turner helped to smooth rocky labor relations, began a sweeping program to cut management layers and reduce costs, and was behind EB's effort to bid on the contract for the first in a new class of submarines, the Seawolf — without which the company likely would not have survived.
"There would've been nothing left for us to build," said Mike Toner, 74, of Vero Beach, Fla., president of EB from 2000 to 2003. "We would've lost the skillset. We would've lost people. We would've been done."
Turner's open and honest communications during this time earned him praise and respect from both executives and rank and file employees. Instead of a top-down approach to decision making, Turner developed teams of upper level management and union leadership and asked them to weigh in on company changes.
"When a decision was going to be made, he wanted input from the people who were going to be impacted," said Mel Olsson, 76, who was president of the Marine Draftsmen's Association-United Auto Workers Local 571, the union for designers, draftsmen, technical aides and engineering support administrative personnel at the shipyard, for 13 years.
Turner left EB in February 1991 after being promoted to executive vice president for marine, land systems and services at General Dynamics, EB's parent company. But he returned to lead EB, which was still struggling, in 1993 as part of a major corporate restructuring within General Dynamics.
The shipyard was facing massive layoffs due to cuts to defense spending with the end of the Cold War, and Navy officials were suggesting that EB's operations be merged with Newport News'.
Under Turner's leadership, the company was able to maintain the quality of the submarines it built despite a low rate of production and a smaller workforce, said Toner, the former EB president. Turner is credited with advancing EB's techniques of building submarines in sections and then fitting them together like a puzzle. He was also behind the company's switch from drawing boards to computer-based design.
"He saved the shipyard by what he did to bring us into the future," said Olsson, the former MDA-UAW president.
On top of that, Turner worked to reestablish relationships with the local community and the Navy "that hadn't been there in a long time," said John Welch, who took over as president after Turner.
"When difficult decisions were being made, both the community, the union, the company, as well as the customer had faith that Jim was going to do the right thing," Welch said.