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January 17, 2014

Thomas V. Jones, Risk-Taking CEO Who Propelled Northrop's Expansion, Revolutionized Aerospace Industry

Thomas V. Jones, the Stanford-educated engineer who authored a bestselling RAND report in the early 1950s on U.S. Air Force transport options before becoming chief executive of Northrop, died January 7 at the age of 93. An active member of RAND's Alumni Association in the years after his departure, he established the $500,000 “Jones Challenge,” a matched-donation program to support the construction of RAND's current Santa Monica headquarters.

Jones began his career at Douglas Aircraft Company during World War II, joining RAND in 1951 after working with the Brazilian government to establish that country's Aeronautical Institute of Technology. He left RAND three years later for Northrop, then a fledgling aerospace company, as assistant to the chief engineer.

By 1959, Jones had risen to president and, shortly thereafter, CEO and chairman. Over his three-decade-long career at the company's helm, Jones would come to revolutionize the aerospace industry's approach to federal contracting by investing heavily in innovation, and at times inviting controversy.

Accurate forecasting of changing military needs helped Jones attract allied government buyers for the low-cost, high-performing F-5 fighter jet, which Northrop developed and funded independently.

The company would go on to turn another internal project into the F/A-18 through a novel partnership with McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing). In 1981, Northrop, now an industry leader, was selected as lead contractor for the Air Force's B-2 stealth bomber, a program that was equal parts sophisticated, secretive, and lucrative for Northrop. Under Jones's leadership, Northrop directed its development funds toward missile guidance systems, stealth technology, unmanned aircraft systems, and other seemingly high-risk ventures that would come to fill critical military needs in the future.

Northrop and its intrepid executive weathered a number of scandals (and the costly failure of the F-20 program) as the company grew from a small handful of contracts to multiple dozens and, four years after Jones's retirement, the acquisition of the Grumman Corporation. Jones stepped down from Northrop's helm in 1990 amid a federal investigation into the company's equipment testing practices. Earlier, he had been indicted for making illegal contributions to Nixon's reelection campaign, and faced censure from Northrop's board of directors amid accusations that the company had bribed foreign officials.

On the heels of a career characterized by high risks and rapid expansion in an industry in which failures could amount to millions of dollars in lost revenue, Jones devoted a similar passion to a wholly different pursuit: producing carefully crafted wine on a small scale using traditional techniques.

In 1959, Jones and his wife, Ruth, purchased a small Bel Air horse range originally built by Victor Fleming, director of Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. Inspired by trips to Bordeaux and Tuscany, the pair began planting grapes on their 16-acre property in 1978, releasing their first table wine in 1992. After finding success with their Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot-Cabernet Franc blend (rated outstanding by Wine Spectator and other publications), they began producing white table wine made from Sauvignon Blanc, which was suited to the cooler temperatures deep inside Moraga Canyon. Located across I-405 from the Getty Museum, Moraga Vineyards was the first winery to be bonded by the city of Los Angeles since Prohibition.

Although Moraga was purchased by News Corporation founder and chief executive Rupert Murdoch in 2013, Jones lived at the estate and remained involved with its operations until his passing.

Ruth Jones, to whom he was married for 67 years, passed away in 2013. Jones is survived by a brother, George Jones, and sister, Margaret Whyte; a son, Peter Jones, a documentary filmmaker in Los Angeles; a daughter, Ruth Marilyn Jones; and two grandchildren.

— Lauren Skrabala