Phebe No­vakonic is Gen­eral Dy­nam­ics’ Se­cret Weapon

At age 17, Phebe No­vakovic knew she was bound for the de­fense world. Now 57 years old, she is a wife, a mother, a for­mer CIA op­er­a­tive, and the CEO of a $30 bil­lion dol­lar com­pany. She is a woman in an in­dus­try dom­i­nated by men.

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Worth at least $20 mil­lion, she is un­like any other ex­ec­u­tive you have even seen. Most CEOS of No­vakovic’s stature tend to travel with a mas­sive en­tourage, she tends to bring not more than two or three ex­ec­u­tives to meet­ings. Her coun­ter­parts may shout from the rooftops about their ex­pe­ri­ence, she wears it like a tal­is­man, show­ing it only when it’s nec­es­sary. While most peo­ple run­ning bil­lion dol­lar com­pa­nies are gre­gar­i­ous, out­go­ing types, the kind of per­son who may have been a politi­cian if not an ex­ec­u­tive, No­vakovic is not that type. Peo­ple who know her say she is no­to­ri­ously elu­sive and me­dia-shy, just like Gen­eral Dy­nam­ics.

Pow­er­ful, rich, and bril­liant, No­vakovic is a role model for mil­lions of women. Un­like other ex­ec­u­tives, she re­sists call­ing her a fem­i­nist. No­vakovic started off at Gen­eral Dy­nam­ics spec­tac­u­larly well, while she was be­ing groomed by Ni­cholas Chabraja for the top job. In 2009, when Jay John­son be­came the CEO, he was al­ready a board mem­ber and for­mer Chief of Naval Op­er­a­tion, while No­vakovic was the head of ma­rine sys­tems, which builds sub­marines and ships. Chabraja was a tough act to fol­low. Af­ter all, he was the man who made the Gulf­stream ac­qui­si­tion in 1995 for $5 bil­lion. In an ef­fort to pro­lif­er­ate into faster mar­ket, John­son spend nearly $1 bil­lion in 2011 to buy Van­gent, a health­care IT provider. In 2012, he spent an undis­closed amount to buy a civil­ian cy­ber­se­cu­rity com­pany and a maker of wire­less net­work equip­ment. The same year, GD an­nounced that John­son would step down by the end of the year, and Phebe No­vakonic would suc­ceed him. She be­came one of the most pow­er­ful peo­ple at one of the world’s most pow­er­ful com­pa­nies.

Her fa­ther, was Ser­bian im­mi­grant, who came to the U.S at age 17 with only $50 in pocked. He knew six lan­guages, but not English, he served in mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence as a lieu­tenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force. Her fa­ther was a big fac­tor in her de­ci­sion to work with the gov­ern­ment, and later at one of the big­gest de­fense ven­dors in the world. “The op­por­tu­ni­ties that this coun­try af­forded him were re­ally in­cul­cated to me at an early age and so I re­ally be­lieve in serv­ing the na­tion,” she said dur­ing a rare in­ter­view with David Ruben­stein, co­founder and CO-CEO of The Car­lyle Group.

Three years into her ten­ure as CEO, and she has re­stored the faith of the Wall Street, af­ter the com­pany’s prof­its made a dra­matic plunge un­der her pre­de­ces­sor. Since the be­gin­ning of 2015, Gen­eral Dy­nam­ics’ stock has sky­rock­eted past its com­peti­tors. Last year’s over­all earn­ings were $2.5 bil­lion, just shy of the com­pany’s record - $2.6 bil­lion in 2010.

Some say she purely ben­e­fited from good tim­ings. The econ­omy has re­cov­ered, re­in­forc­ing de­mand for jets. GD was able to se­cure lu­cra­tive de­fense projects

- a $10 bil­lion to $ 13 bil­lion con­tract to sell ar­mored ve­hi­cles to Saudi Ara­bia. Re­cently, its ma­rine divi­sion was awarded a $17.6 bil­lion, 10 year con­tract to build 10 Vir­ginia-class sub­marines for the US navy.

The ques­tion re­mains, can a dis­ci­plined CIA op­er­a­tive ex­cel at find­ing a new mis­sion?

No­vakovic is now aim­ing to se­cure GD a $100 bil­lion pro­gram to build 12 Ohio-class nu­clear-mis­sile sub­marines. Some be­lieve, the project is costly and could de­vour up the Navy’s ac­qui­si­tion bud­get un­less the Congress is happy to loosen its pock­ets. How will Gen­eral Dy­nam­ics find growth?

Such ques­tions have prop­a­gated since the Lock­heed Martin an­nounced plans to ac­quire Sikirsky Air­craft for $9 bil­lion. The pur­chase is ex­pected to in­crease and di­ver­sify rev­enues and give ac­cess to for­eign mar­kets.

Will No­vakovic break her prom­ise and pur­sue ac­qui­si­tions? She will help Gen­eral Dyan­mics stretch out of its com­fort zone by ven­tur­ing out from decades­long de­fense-con­tract­ing cy­cles?

True to her past, No­vakovic is an enigma. Just be­cause she doesn’t speak to the press or make too many pub­lic ap­pear­ances doesn’t mean she’s lack­ing in wit or charm. Dur­ing her most re­cent earn­ings call, she came across as con­fi­dent. Surely, she showed mil­i­tary blunt­ness by call­ing ru­mors of weak­en­ing jet sales as “ru­mor in­tel­li­gence, or RUMINT.”

Her mil­i­tary blunt­ness works to her ad­van­tage. She knows what her ex­pec­ta­tions are, and has a high stan­dard for per­for­mance. When you de­liver she takes care of you, and when you don’t she lets you know. “She had an enor­mous amount of au­thor­ity in the con­tract­ing world,” says Ni­cholas Chabraja.

Per­haps, Phebe No­vakovic does have a plan, but she isn’t will­ing to make it pub­lic yet.

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