Linthicum plant stars for Northrop In year since merger, it's become one of top revenue performers

No worries at Christmas

But company's future remains unclear in industry's turmoil

February 23, 1997|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

Jim Roche has enough military toys on his office wall to overthrow a puppet regime.

A friend who knows his boyish delight in things that go whoosh and bang once joked that being general manager of the Northrop Grumman Corp. electronics division in Linthicum gives Roche access to "the biggest F.A.O. Schwarz in the world."

It's about more than toys, of course. Northrop Grumman bought the former Westinghouse plant exactly a year ago next Saturday because its 7,300 workers make radars and other gear for the real-life versions of those attack jets, submarines, helicopters and trucks on Roche's shelves.

Roche totes the models down the hall to the conference room to remind corporate visitors what brought them to Baltimore from California. But he probably doesn't need to. In its first year as a unit of Northrop Grumman, the division has become one of the company's best revenue drivers.

Roche says he feels good about having pushed for the acquisition. His position as corporate strategist had convinced him that the defense industry's future lies in electrons and not metal or gunpowder.

Twelve months after the March 1, 1996, purchase, there are a few blips on the scope. A push to use office space more efficiently could make facilities -- but not necessarily workers -- expendable in Sykesville and Hunt Valley. Workers throughout the division need to learn new skills such as software engineering or face losing their jobs to new blood, Roche said.

The biggest bogey of all, though, is Northrop Grumman itself, and where the company fits into a shifting defense industry landscape. Depending on whom you believe, the Westinghouse buy was either a brilliant stroke that put Northrop Grumman in the catbird seat or the last smart move of a company about to disappear in a cloud of feathers.

Either way, most observers agree that the Electronic Sensors and Systems Division is a plus for Northrop Grumman. And Roche said in a recent interview that the reverse is also true.

"Even in our first year, we have at least one example we can point to where the folks in Baltimore have benefited by virtue of being part of the larger Northrop Grumman," he said.

That example is the Space-Based Infrared System, or SBIRS, a satellite network being built by Lockheed Martin Corp. to monitor hostile missile launches. A Northrop Grumman division in New York developed sensors for the unit, and turned to Linthicum to build them. That will mean 40 or 50 new local jobs, Roche said.

At 57, Roche said he intends to spend eight years -- until his retirement -- trying to "make this a very stable, solid business, to grow it as best we can."

Stability is not something the current work force has enjoyed much for the last few years. A seemingly endless cycle of layoffs has left employment at less than half its peak of 17,000 in 1988.

Last year, Roche said, was "the first Christmas these people have had that they weren't worried. A year ago they were up for sale. The years before that was the annual layoff for a couple of years. I had employees come to me and say what a pleasure it was to have a holiday and be able to go home and not worry about whether they came back."

Gladys Greene, president of Local 1805 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, says she credits Roche with making the transition to new ownership "a very positive move."

The 600 or so members of her local feel more secure about the future, she said, and have found Roche to be accessible and sympathetic. He regularly leaves his office to mingle with workers, and recently spent time answering questions at assemblies for all employees.

Some of the most attentive were the 250 workers at the Sykesville marine systems plant and the 550 at the Hunt Valley field engineering outfit. While he hasn't made up his mind, Roche said, he is studying whether it would be more economical to move both of those groups to headquarters in Linthicum.

Greene said she trusted Roche to stick by his word and preserve jobs. Shortly after he arrived, Greene said, Roche met with representatives of the plant's three major unions to discuss a new attendance policy that the members didn't like. "He pulled the policy, and we appreciated that," Greene said.

There's a lot of appreciation around the company these days, including at corporate headquarters in California.

"I'm delighted with the performance of the division, delighted with the ease with which people have integrated into Northrop Grumman," corporate Chairman Kent Kresa said in an interview. He said the acquisition was a key to his goal of transforming the company from one that focused on a dwindling military aircraft business to a "more complete" company that emphasizes military electronics.

The division certainly provides Northrop Grumman with a good portion of the stature that remains to it in the reconfiguration of the defense industry.

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