rick-matthewsIt was like a steady rain after a lengthy drought or perhaps similar to the elation Cubs’ fans felt after winning the World Series and breaking their 108-year “curse.”  That is how the news of Northrop Grumman’s decision to locate its Manned Aircraft Design Center of Excellence in Melbourne felt to everyone on the Space Coast. The center is one of five the company has across the country and is bringing thousands of high tech, high income jobs to the county.

Not only has it been one of Brevard’s greatest post-Space Shuttle wins, to Rick Matthews, the center’s leader and Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems’ vice president, global operations, it was another step in making this coastal region “the Aerospace Coast.”

“Our strategy to develop unique centers of excellence better enables us to align with our customers need for increasingly innovative and affordable products, services and solutions in a challenging fiscal and threat environment.” said Matthews.  “At Northrop Grumman, we are known for innovation; for solving our nation’s toughest global security challenges and I’m incredibly proud to work with a team who contribute to this effort every day.”

Contributing to Northrop Grumman’s success isn’t the only thing Matthews is proud of.  The dynamic executive joined the company almost a decade ago after a distinguished 26-year career in the U.S. Air Force. “I was proud to wear the uniform of our nation in the Air Force, and I am blessed to continue my service in a different capacity,” Matthews said enthusiastically. 

From Rural Fields to the Forefront of Technology

Matthews was raised in a central Virginia farming community. Growing up in a large blue collar family of eight taught him the value of hard work, as he shared duties at home like “caring for farm animals, tending the garden and working on my grandfather’s farm, while looking for entrepreneurial opportunities to make money,” he shared with his quick and characteristic smile. Principles like caring for others, sharing what you have, a strong work ethic and faith, what Matthews defines as “service before self,” were values that his parents and extended family modeled daily. “The love and support, which is still a part of our family, compensated for anything we lacked financially,” he said. 

In his home, education was a priority, but according to Matthews it was his school principal that saw his academic potential and placed him in college preparatory classes in math, science and the one he still distains, Latin. “Someone going to college was the exception where I grew up, but I approached my studies with the same competitive drive I pursued with baseball, playing in the band or getting that chicken breast before my siblings at the dinner table.” Adding, “I think I would have been a jazz drummer or a professional ball player; I sure had the drive and passion, I just didn’t have the talent.”

After completing his undergraduate degree, the jobs he landed didn’t provide the challenge he was looking for. It was the Air Force that presented that opportunity, through what Matthews described as continual “Stretch Assignments.” “In the Air Force you never settle into a comfort zone. As the soon as a job became routine, you move to a new assignment. I had to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Today, if I’m too comfortable, I feel like something isn’t right.”

Growing In Leadership

Early on it was the senior enlisted leaders who served as his mentors, which taught him the importance of humility and gathering information from a variety of sources – a practice he still exercises today, walking among and conversing with company employees at all levels. “For me, there is no better leadership training ground than the military. I was a freshly minted second lieutenant with responsibility for over 250 people. The senior enlisted leaders took me under their wing, showed me the ropes and graciously shared their wisdom with me.

“As I grew, so did my thirst for increased responsibilities, but I was smart enough to know that you don’t get there alone.  In addition to senior enlisted personnel, there are many generals and business leaders who have guided me and helped me be successful.  Take time to think, approach challenges big to small and never give away your integrity for anyone or anything are just three examples of the sage counsel and guidance I received that have helped me along the way.” 

A turning point Matthews cites was being chosen, with 12 other captains, to attend a very selective one year air staff training program in the Pentagon. It was a career altering opportunity to work directly for a general officer, with unprecedented access to attend senior leadership meetings, conferences, and interface with other departments. “This is where I learned how the USAF really worked, how DoD (Department of Defense) worked, and how they fit into the larger enterprise.  It was an incredible learning experience that set me up for increasingly challenging assignments, early promotions and critical understanding that prepared me for my later work.”

Changing Uniforms

The transition from the military was not a decision that came easily for Matthews, but having weighed his options he felt it was time. His initial inclination was to move outside the defense field, but he soon realized that this was where he found the greatest sense of purpose and continued growth. As he put it, “I know it and I love it.”

The attraction to Northrop Grumman was primarily about values and culture, plus it gave him an opportunity to continue to work with the people and for the nation he carried in such high esteem. “With Northrop Grumman I still get to serve,” he said. “The programs and products we develop for my brothers and sisters who wear the uniform help to ensure we have an unfair advantage over those bad actors who wish to do us harm. For me it was less about compensation and more about the same things that had kept me in the service for so long: values, teamwork, and mission.  Northrop Grumman aligned perfectly in each of these areas.”

A life-long learner, Matthews’ growth continued at Northrop Grumman.  “From senior executives to peers and junior employees, if you’re open to diversity of thought and innovation, you remove shackles that prevent you from growing.  So many people helped me to think at a higher level, understand the importance of making timely decisions despite the complexity and ambiguity, the criticality of finding and using top talent, and taking time to think and shape an organization for the long term.”

Also, the values he saw modeled in his parents and grandparents of loving your neighbor and caring for your community, found fresh expression for him personally and through the commitment Northrop Grumman makes to the areas they call home.

“The State of Florida and the local leadership were great partners in our decision to locate Centers of Excellence in St. Augustine and in Melbourne. It’s a great business climate the state enjoys, and once people get here, they don’t want to leave, but our employees are only half the story.

With the thousands of jobs we are bringing here also come families.  These are husbands and wives, moms and dads, along with kids of all ages who engage in the community, volunteer in the schools, and give back in numerous ways.  That is the real story and I know I speak for all the men and women of our company when I tell you we’re proud to be here.” ◆