When Grumman Stood Alone

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Grumman Corp.

The dictates of the market first consolidated hundreds of military contractors into dozens, and now only a handful remains: Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon.

Sometimes it takes, of all things, an obituary of a titan from times past – like this one, of John Bierwirth, 89, who ran Grumman from 1972 to 1988, six years before Northrop swallowed it  — to remind us of what has been lost. Grumman had been an independent company since its birth in 1929, and built some of the Navy’s most revered aircraft, ranging from World War II’s F6F Hellcats to the A-6 Intruders and F-14 Tomcats (of Top Gun fame) in the 1970s.

Sure, some elements of the business were the same then as now: cost overruns, failed efforts to expand into civilian markets, and overseas sales among them.

But there were victories to savor as well. In 1981, Bierwirth fought off an effort by the LTV Corp. to buy Grumman, going so far as to encourage his company’s 23,000 employees – the largest employer on Long Island at the time – to buy stock to keep it out of LTV’s hands. “It was like making a great play at the Super Bowl,” he told Newsday in 1988, “and hearing the crowds cheer.”

Godspeed – in a Tomcat, no doubt – Mr. Bierwirth.