It was, Norm Augustine will tell you, a matter of luck that led him to the top job at the world's largest defense and aerospace company.
Just luck -- random events, followed impulses, being in the right place at the right time, even being in the wrong place at the right time.
Had it not been for a chance conversation on a train, he recalls, he might have followed his boyhood dream. "I always wanted to be a forest ranger," he said. "I love the outdoors. It looked like a good life to me."
Instead, the "good life" has been a 40-year career that culminated this year when Norman R. Augustine took over as chief executive of Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp., a $22.8 billion a year -- and still growing -- giant with more than 160,000 employees in 50 states and 23 countries.
By the time he takes his place Thursday at the podium in the grand ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, where he will preside over the company's annual meeting, it will be even bigger, having just completed its $9.1 billion absorption of Loral Corp.
While Mr. Augustine, 60, will credit luck and chance for his rise to the unofficial leadership of the defense industry, others say he has the sharpest mind in the industry and an uncanny ability to envision the future -- qualities that have prompted three presidents to court the moderate Republican for defense
"That and a lot of hard work is what Norm Augustine is all about," says longtime associate Edward C. "Pete" Aldridge, a former secretary of the Air Force who heads an aerospace research center in El Segundo, Calif. "He's ambitious, but not overly ambitious, and he is not one to ever waste an opportunity. He has always demonstrated a high degree of credibility and brilliance."
Also known for his wit, Mr. Augustine is a master of the soundbite. He refers to a 1993 Pentagon dinner where defense industry executives were told there would not be enough work for all of them to survive as "The Last Supper."
Hospitalized for an appendectomy 12 years ago, he wrote "Augustine's Laws," a biting, yet humorous look at the world of business management and mismanagement. Example: Law 32: Hiring consultants "to conduct studies can be an excellent means of turning problems into gold -- your problems into their gold."
Mr. Augustine took over Martin Marietta Corp. in 1987, as defense spending plunged, a period he called the 1929 of the defense industry. His strategy: Make Martin Marietta one of the few survivors by growing through mergers and acquisitions -- including last year's mega-deal with Lockheed Corp. The result: Sales more than quadruple the level of nine years ago.
"The amazing thing about this is that Norm did it during a very difficult time for the industry," says Paul H. Nisbit, president of JSA Research in Newport, R.I. "The Pentagon budget has been declining since he took over."
Today, Lockheed Martin's products include Titan and Atlas rockets, the F-16 and F-22 fighter planes, C-130 cargo planes and satellites. It manages the federal government's nuclear laboratories and NASA's space shuttle. It's a leader in defense electronics and produces a wide range of other products ranging from electronics used in video games to jetliner thrust reversers made in Middle River.
It continues to grow. The Loral acquisition will boost its sales 30 percent and add 30,000 employees.
The company also is pursuing what is expected to be the Pentagon's biggest defense contract ever. It's for the development of a new fighter plane for use by the Air Force, Navy, Marines and the British Royal Navy. The winner could reap up to $1 trillion in sales and emerge as the nation's sole supplier of fighter planes.
What's more, in an industry that has had its share of scandals, Mr. Augustine has come through with a reputation for integrity. He has been called the "Mr. Clean" of the defense industry.
"I've been in this town [Washington] for 20 years," says Paul Mann, executive news editor of Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine, "and I've never heard of this guy taking a wrong step."
There was nothing in Mr. Augustine's modest upbringing in Denver to foreshadow his success, unless you credit, as he does, parents who passed on traditional virtues of value, hard work and education. And the system worked for him -- diligence and brillance were rewarded with opportunity, and opportunity made the most of.
He calls his father, who worked for a wholesale produce company and was later a clerk for the federal government, "the most honest man in the world."
And he credits his mother, who is 102, for his drive. "Mom was convinced that education was the key to success, even though my parents didn't have much of it. My mother believes in hard work. As she would put it: 'To be someone, you need a good education and you need to work hard.' "