Newport News Shipbuilding's Petters avoids spotlight
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — There’s a 7-Eleven near Mike Petters’ home, and from time to time, the CEO of the company that owns Newport News Shipbuilding drops by.
It wasn’t until Petters’ photo was splashed across the front page of The Virginian-Pilot a few weeks ago that the cashiers had any inkling he was the boss of the company at the center of a national debate over federal spending.
“Great picture,” one of the women told him. “But I didn’t know you were president.”
Before then, he had been just Mike, another guy from Newport News who worked at the shipyard.
Petters, who heads the shipyard’s parent company, Huntington Ingalls Industries, prefers it that way.
But he’s been thrust into the spotlight lately. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama chose the shipyard as the backdrop for an 11th-hour appeal to Congress to hammer out a deal that would avoid automatic across-the-board federal budget cuts. It was Petters who introduced the commander in chief.
The event had little bearing in the end. The cuts, known as sequestration, kicked in Friday. Now, workers at the shipyard and across defense-dependent Hampton Roads are bracing for what comes next.
Will there be layoffs?
Petters has hinted at that possibility, especially if Congress doesn’t come up with a budget deal toward month’s end that includes money for projects that Newport News Shipbuilding had been contracted to begin work on this year. Already, the Navy has postponed the carrier Abraham Lincoln’s move to Newport News for a midlife overhaul.
The shipyard where Petters started work 26 years ago is the only facility in the nation that builds aircraft carriers and one of two that build nuclear submarines. More than 21,000 people are employed there.
In the early 1990s, after the Cold War ended, the shipyard downsized from roughly 30,000 workers.
So Petters and his shipyard have been through tumultuous times.
But what bothers him this time around, he said in a recent interview, is the disappearance of voices of moderation in the political debate – voices whose influence helped prevent meltdowns and sudden stop-start scenarios that ultimately cost taxpayers more.
Even during the ’90s, “there were folks who were kind of above that fray,” Petters said.
He mentioned Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, Virginia Sen. John Warner and Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott. All retired.
“The ‘cooler heads’ is what I call them,” he said. “They could go and figure out what’s the right answer for this.”
“It’s not clear to me today who those people are, you know?”
It’s not Petters’ style to stir controversies, but rather to head them off.
It’s a lesson he learned in childhood.
He was the oldest of six children in a Catholic family that had to stretch dollars. Petters’ father was a Florida orange grower. Though Petters said his mother and father were very supportive of each other, they would sometimes argue.
“When they would fight, it would be emotional, not substantive,” he said. “And whenever it got emotional – and this is probably true of any house – it quickly became a case where one was not listening to the other. When it gets emotional like that, people don’t listen to each other.”
Some of the same dynamics are playing out in the national discussion, he suggested.
But Petters, those who know him say, has developed a gift for making people feel as if they’re on the same team.
“Mike has always been a very approachable guy, you know, and I’ve always appreciated that about him,” said Arnold Outlaw, a shipyard worker for 41 years who is president of United Steelworkers Local 8888.
The union and shipyard are negotiating a new labor contract. But Outlaw said, “I’ve never had the kind of relationship with him where everything was union versus company.”
Mark Hugel, a retired Navy rear admiral, worked with Petters while serving in a job overseeing carrier construction and overhauls at Newport News.
“He’s a pretty low-key guy, so you’re not going to find Mike out making a big splash somewhere. That’s just not his way,” Hugel said. “He’s just easy to approach and easy to talk with.”
Bill McCarthy, also a retired Navy rear admiral, was an executive officer on the carrier John C. Stennis when the ship was in its infancy at Newport News in 1996. Petters was a shipyard executive at the time.
“More than a problem solver, he helped pre-empt problems,” McCarthy said. “He helped to remove barriers.”
He said Petters’ Navy experience – he spent five years in the submarine service after graduating in 1982 from the Naval Academy – helped him get the big picture.
The Stennis, McCarthy said, was “delivered early, under budget. Those are things that you don’t always hear.”
Born on Christmas Day 1959 in a small town just north of Tampa, Petters grew up learning first-hand about what he terms the “tension between the resources that we have and the things that we want.”
While he was in the sixth grade, his family went to a 25th anniversary Mass for a priest, his grandmother’s cousin, at Jesuit High School in Tampa.
It was the first of a number of significant turning points that helped mark the trajectory of his life and career.
Though he fell in love with the Tampa school, his parents couldn’t afford to send him there.
But his score on the school’s entrance exam earned him admission, and he won a scholarship that allowed him to work off half his tuition on the campus by cleaning windows, mowing grass and painting the chapel.
He worked off the other half during the summers in the orange groves.
While his parents “didn’t have the financial means to do all of the things that a lot of folks might have been able to do, they fundamentally believed that the way that you progress in life is, you learn,” Petters said. “And you should take advantage of every opportunity to learn something.”
He made the best of his high school experience.
“When I went to Jesuit, the question in my life changed from, ‘Are you going to college?’ to ‘Where are you going to college?’?” he said.
He dreamed of going to Notre Dame, but money got in the way again.
His next choice was the Naval Academy, which rejected him.
The offer of a full-scholarship ride to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy was tempting, but before he accepted that appointment, he got a call from the U.S. Naval Academy Foundation. The organization had been sifting through the pile of applications turned down by the Naval Academy, looking for those who deserved a second chance.
It offered Petters a $1,000 scholarship to the school of his choice – on the condition that he reapply to the Naval Academy for his sophomore year. After a year at Louisiana State University, he won admission to the academy.
Today, he sits on the Naval Academy Foundation’s board of directors.
Petters’ office at the Huntington Ingalls headquarters along the James River is fairly spartan, especially for a CEO whose total compensation, including stock awards, was $12.9 million in 2011, the last year for which his pay has been disclosed.
Among Petters’ few decorations are some boxed American flags, one from a submarine, another from the carrier Eisenhower, marking the end of its overhaul.
One day last month, he picked up an old photo of his two daughters – showing a very young girl holding her sister, a few hours old – when asked what item on his desk means the most to him.
“Being a parent, being a husband, those are the most important things that you’ll ever do in your life,” he said. “But it’s crucial to our – to your well-being – to the people that are closest to you, to their well-being, and ultimately to our civil society, that you get that right. And you have to work at that all the time.”
Petters said he never imagined himself one day as the CEO of a major defense company. At the end of this month, Huntington Ingalls will mark its second anniversary as an independent company, after having been spun off from Northrop Grumman Corp. Despite the uncertainty shadowing the company, it has remained profitable, and its stock price last week reached the highest point since the spinoff.
The paths to success in his business, Petters said, are all about being able to solve very complex problems.
“If you’re able to solve those problems, then you get more problems to solve, you know? That’s what happens,” he said.
Petters said a line from a 1910 speech by President Theodore Roosevelt resonates with him.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”
Though that’s not where he’s ever aspired to be, that’s where he generally ends up, Petters said.
“When I’m in the arena, you know, the sleeves get rolled up, and we’ve got to go try to solve the problems that we have.”