April 03, 2013

Ken Richardson (’59) Credits Creativity for the Success of Hughes Aircraft

Alumnus has new book detailing the history of a legendary company

By David Davis

D. Kenneth Richardson ('59) remembers the exact moment when he was inspired to work in the aviation industry.

The year was 1935. Richardson, who was born and raised in Honolulu, was five years old. His father took him to witness the inaugural flight of Pan Am's fabled China Clipper, a “flying boat” that flew from San Francisco to the Philippines, with stops in Hawaii (and other ports), and opened the Pacific Rim to commercial flight.

“I said to myself, ‘I want to have something to do with that business,’” Richardson says. “I want to fly airplanes.”

Richardson fulfilled his childhood dream in 1952, when he joined Hughes Aircraft Company, based in Culver City, as a radar design engineer. Howard Hughes had created the eponymous company during the Great Depression, as a subsidiary of Hughes Tool Company. But after the billionaire crashed his experimental spy plane in Beverly Hills (near the Los Angeles Country Club) and nearly died in 1946, he became a recluse. Hughes withdrew from day-to-day operations, and ownership of the company was transferred to a foundation that supported medical research.

The aura of its maverick founder, Richardson says, permeated the company. “We made sure that, whatever we were doing, we were going to do it better than it had ever been done before,” he says. “We didn't feel constrained by any procedural ground-rules—we broke barriers—and we operated with integrity, technically as well as business-wise. Finally, we didn't tell anybody what we were doing because they will steal your ideas.”

In the mid-1950s, Richardson decided that he “wasn't going to make his mark on civilization” as an engineer and enrolled at UCLA's School of Business Administration (now known as UCLA Anderson School of Management). “What was so good about UCLA was the exposure to the big picture,” says Richardson, who credits professor Howard “Howdy” Koontz with pushing him to study nights and weekends over five years to earn his MBA in 1959. “Other students came from other walks of life, other professions, with a completely different outlook. It was a marvelous experience for me.”

At Hughes, as he rose to become corporate president and chief operating officer, Richardson applied many of management principles he learned in business school, including professional integrity and personal responsibility to customers and co-workers. He worked to recruit top engineering talent and then unleashed them on the most forward-looking projects. The overriding message: Hughes fosters creativity.

“We operated the organization as if it was a laboratory, rather than a manufacturing outfit,” he says. “We gave our talent the freedom to think, to experiment, to do trial and error, and then we rewarded them for their achievements. Over-supervision, over-maintenance and over-constraint is bad for creativity.”

Another advantage for Hughes was that, until 1985, it was privately owned. That allowed the company to re-invest heavily in research and development and to ignore the short-term bottom line. “The problem with many of the public companies is that they have to show quarterly improvement in earnings,” he says. “That stifles invention.”

Richardson's 40-year career with Hughes coincided with the enormous growth of the defense and aerospace industry as the United States sought to counter the threat of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Bidding for and winning government contracts, Hughes designed and manufactured classified equipment for the military, including radar for guided missiles, night-vision imaging devices, lasers, and reconnaissance satellites.

The patriotic element of their work served to inspire management and employees alike. “Winning the Cold War without combat was our mission,” says Richardson, who witnessed the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, at age ten, while growing up in Honolulu. “Many other companies were distracted by commercial enterprises, but we felt that what we were doing was truly important for the country. We weren't making things to make people happy. We were doing it for our survival.”

Hughes and its many competitors, including Lockheed, Douglas and Northrop, helped turn Southern California into the epicenter of the aerospace industry. With 85,000 staff at its peak, Hughes was Southern California's largest private employer. Eventually, as Hughes expanded operations into eleven states and four other nations, it applied the expertise gleaned from their top-secret military contracts for commercial applications, including supermarket scanners, digital watches, OnStar, DirecTV and its ubiquitous rooftop satellite antennas.

Howard Hughes died in 1976, but the turning-point for Hughes Aircraft came when General Motors outbid Boeing, Allied Signal, Honeywell, and Ford and purchased the company for $5.2 billion in 1985. “It was a good fit in concept,” Richardson. “We were going to bring our methodology and incorporate it into their operations.”

But G.M.'s top-down management culture ran counter to Hughes' innovative ways. Soon, G.M. began to sell off segments of Hughes, with Raytheon purchasing the military-related unit, Boeing purchasing the spacecraft design and manufacturing unit, and News Corp. buying DirecTV. By the turn of the 21st century, one of this country's most formidable and innovative companies had all but disappeared.

“It did not work, try as we might,” Richardson says. “Getting G.M. to adopt our techniques was impossible. They absorbed us, but they didn't accept us.”

Richardson notes that, notwithstanding G.M.'s purchase, the legacy of Hughes Aircraft remains intact. Innovations in weaponry and intelligence developed by Hughes served to strengthen American military preparedness and avoid possible wars. Later, these advances helped to protect U.S. troops during recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It has long been said that the best defense is an excellent offense, but I prefer ‘The best defense is to remain more capable than any opponent if combat cannot be avoided, ’” Richardson pointed out.

Richardson retired from Hughes in 1991. He learned to fly and piloted recreationally until he suffered serious injury in a plane crash. Now living in Santa Barbara, he recently collaborated with more than 90 retired former colleagues on an authoritative corporate history entitled Hughes After Howard: The Story of Hughes Aircraft Company (Sea Hill Press).

“So many people gave their entire professional lives to this company and achieved marvelous technical achievements,” Richardson says. “We wanted to honor their contributions.”

The book strips away the mystery that shrouded the company even as it celebrates its many accomplishments. “Richardson ably recounts the development of many of the technologies,” wrote L.A. Times technology editor Peter Pau in his book review, “and indeed, historians, engineers and scientists are sure to relish the detailed account of replacing the lead-sulfide detectors in Sidewinder and early Falcon missiles. (It was instrumental in making smarter radar.)”

Richardson admits to another reason for publishing the book. He believes that, in these turbulent economic times, the United States needs to renew its commitment to engineering and technological innovation. “We've fallen, as a nation, as the leader of technology and scientific advancement,” Richardson says. “We need to re-install the vigor to be in the front and to re-dedicate ourselves to complete that mission. It's vital to our survival.”

Contact Information

UCLA Anderson Office of Media Relations, (310) 206-7707, Media.relations@anderson.ucla.edu

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