As a young man, Vance D. Coffman would get up before dawn on winter mornings, mount the horse he bought for $150 in chore money and ride along the creek on his family's farm, checking muskrat traps.
It's tempting to write about the stars in the cold Iowa sky above him, and how those would one day draw the young man to the top of American industry. But Coffman himself would never put it that way.
Coffman, 53, is an unpretentious space engineer who doesn't like to tell personal stories, write books or coin aphorisms. His burden is that he takes over as chief executive of Lockheed Martin Corp. on Aug. 1 from a man who does.
Norman R. Augustine was a celebrity CEO -- adviser to presidents, symbol of an industry, a Lee Iaccoca with warheads. It's easy to find his replacement lacking by comparison. The difference matters. The head of Lockheed Martin will command about 230,000 employees -- more than the Marine Corps and its reserves -- and almost $40 billion a year in revenue.
As one of the nation's top two builders of warplanes, missiles, space launchers, satellites and defense electronics, Coffman will be in a position to influence military policy and international relations.
Along the way, he'll have to figure out how to do something Augustine hasn't accomplished: make the Lockheed Martin colossus work, on a daily basis, over time.
Counting the pending $11.6 billion purchase of Northrop Grumman Corp., 22 formerly separate companies have to learn to live as one.
That may be the hardest task of all, and the one for which the studious Coffman is best suited.
"If Vance doesn't thrive [leading] this corporation, it's because they've gotten too big, too fast and maybe no one could do it," said Val P. Peline, former president of the Lockheed space division.
Outsiders from Wall Street, Washington and the media have to take such sentiments on faith.
Coffman rose out of virtual darkness; he can't even talk about 20 of his 30 years at Lockheed, having spent them on top secret satellite missions at the company's space and missiles division in Sunnyvale, Calif.
All that professional secrecy combined with a Midwestern farm boy's natural disdain for blabbing makes Coffman a challenge to interview.
How did he rise from the obscurity of secret programs to corporate prominence?
"Lucky," he says.
End of answer.
What has the transition from Augustine's leadership been like? "I'd say it was exciting." When Coffman lets himself speak, he seems to wrestle with expressing several layers of thought at once.
For instance, he says he can summarize the company's operating slogan "pretty succinctly," and then mounts a meticulous, 125-word discourse that touches on the stages of a contract and even the relative life cycles of airplanes, satellites and launch vehicles.
The slogan itself is a pretty succinct two words, "Mission Success."
But that's the public Coffman. Guarded to the point of shyness, the man is easy to pigeonhole as a Spock to Augustine's Captain Kirk.
Associates say that's only part of the picture, that Coffman is an ambitious man who learns by listening to others and who earns loyalty with his deep, unshakable foundations.
"The theme for any story on Vance has gotta be he had solid, Middle America roots, and he went out and got himself educated and his intellect allowed him to succeed. And he never lost his roots," Peline said.
Coffman was born in 1944 in Kinross, Iowa, a village of grain and dairy farmers that today has 89 residents, a post office and two churches.
The family moved across the state in 1949 to Winthrop -- a bustling 600 souls -- where his father bought land to raise soybeans, grain and corn. Coffman said he learned discipline early in life, rising to do chores at 6 a.m. and doing them again every evening at 5. He helped a neighbor with cattle, saving money to buy his first horse.
That, too, taught him lessons -- including what may be as close as he can get to an Augustine-style aphorism: "If you have a horse that you'd like to ride in the summer, you have to take care of it in the wintertime as well."
Coffman doesn't ride more than a couple of times a year now, with one of his two daughters. While he may look more like a desk jockey in photographs -- aviator glasses, wide forehead, sober smile -- he remains an expert horseman, regularly winning rodeos staged by an elite group of aerospace executives who go on a Western retreat every year.
But the rustic life was never Coffman's aim. His father had studied chemical engineering, and left college halfway through to buy a farm. "In hindsight, I think he felt that there were lots of ways to make a living that were different than being on a farm," Coffman said.
Coffman and his three brothers -- one older, two younger -- all wound up going to Iowa State University in science and engineering fields.
It was space that caught Coffman's interest. He grew up during the race with the Russians, and remembers being captivated by Sputnik -- though he casts the memory in typically unromantic terms.