Chabraja, Nicholas D. 1942–
Nicholas D. Chabraja
Chief executive officer and chairman of the board, General Dynamics
Born: November 6, 1942, in Gary, Indiana.
Education: Northwestern University, BA, 1964; Northwestern University, JD, 1967.
Family: Married Eleanor (maiden name unknown; philanthropist).
Career: Jenner & Block (law firm), 1968–1997; 1984–1993, partner; 1986, special counsel to United States House of Representatives; 1992, special counsel to General Dynamics; General Dynamics, 1993–1994, senior vice president and general counsel; 1994–, director; 1994–1996, executive vice president; 1997 (1 January–31 May), vice chairman of the board; 1997–, chief executive officer and chairman of the board.
Address: General Dynamics, 3190 Fairview Park Drive, Falls Church, Virginia 22042-4523; http://www.gendyn.com; http://www.generaldynamics.com; http://www.gd.com.
■ Nicholas (Nick) Chabraja (pronounced cha-brah -ya) first made his mark as a lawyer, eventually serving as special counsel to the House of Representatives in 1986 during the Senate impeachment trial of Judge Harry E. Claiburne. For about twenty years he worked on cases for General Dynamics. It was because of his legal services to General Dynamics that he was able to make the shift from lawyer to business executive, becoming both general counsel and vice president for the company in 1993. He revealed an astute understanding of the problems that beset General Dynamics in the 1990s and rose to become the company's chief executive officer. He put the company on a course of expansion after years of cutting away subsidiaries and was so successful that General Dynamics averaged a 19.2 percent annual return on equity from 1997 to 2001, more than double the average for other defense contractors.
FIRST A LAWYER
Chabraja had majored in political science at Northwestern University before earning a degree in law. He was an exceptional legal talent who passed the bar in Indiana in 1967 and in Illinois in 1968. Passing the Illinois bar enabled him to accept a position with Jenner & Block, a prestigious Chicago law firm that also had offices in Washington, D.C. He made his home in Lake Forest, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, but as he advanced in the law firm, his duties carried him ever more frequently to Washington.
He had worked on the legal affairs of General Dynamics ever since becoming a partner in Jenner & Block in 1984. By the end of the 1980s General Dynamics was losing money. CEO Bill Anders, a former astronaut, sold off problematic divisions, including those making F-16 jets (to Lockheed) and Tomahawk missiles (to Hughes). By 1993 General Dynamics, which in the 1980s had been the nation's largest defense contractor, had only two divisions left: Electric Boat, which made nuclear submarines, and Land Systems, which made M1 tanks. In March 1992 Chabraja was appointed special counsel to General Dynamics to help with the corporate restructuring.
THEN A BUYER
In 1993 Chabraja joined General Dynamics as senior vice president and general counsel, and in 1994 he became a member of the board of directors, where his sharp mind and astute judgment impressed the other directors. When he became executive vice president in 1994, he began pushing for a new approach for General Dynamics, one of expansion rather than selling off the last divisions of the company. He became Anders's heir apparent, and in quick succession in 1997 he became vice chairman of the board then CEO and chairman. His contract required that he move near to Washington, D.C., and he settled in a suburb in northern Virginia. In 1997 General Dynamics had $4 billion in sales.
General Dynamics faced the choice of dissolving itself by selling what remained or using the capital it had accumulated from the sale of most of its divisions to expand its business. Times were tough for defense contractors, and most were suffering losses in revenue, but Chabraja chose to try to acquire other companies. He looked for companies available at bargain prices that could be improved by better management of their resources, and he tried to acquire companies diverse enough that General Dynamics could make money even when one industry or another was in a slump. Thus, General Dynamics bought Advanced Technology systems, which made fiber optic cables, and Bath Iron Works, which made Aegis destroyers.
In 1999 Chabraja tried his most audacious purchase, the acquisition of Newport News Shipbuilding, makers of nuclear submarines, in a deal agreed to by Newport News management. All seemed well, with shareholders of Newport News happy, but the deal was blocked by the federal government, which wanted to avoid General Dynamics' having a monopoly on the manufacture of America's nuclear submarines. In spite of that setback, Chabraja led the purchase of an ailing maker of private jets, Gulfstream Aerospace Group, concluding the deal on July 30, 1999, for $4.8 billion. Chabraja reduced the size of the company's management and initiated a program of cutting expenses. By 2002 Gulfstream accounted for 40 percent of General Dynamics' profits.
In 2001 General Dynamics bought Motorola's defense unit, which with General Dynamics' fiber optic cable business enabled General Dynamics to improve wiring and communications systems on its ships and in its tanks. In 2002 General Dynamics had $13.8 billion in sales, netting $917 million. On August 8, 2002, the board of directors of General Dynamics extended Chabraja's contract by three years, to 2005.
On March 4, 2003, General Dynamics purchased General Motors' defense division, which made armored vehicles—a good fit with General Dynamics' Land Systems' M1 tank manufacturing. On August 12, 2003, General Dynamics purchased Veridian, an information technologies company that complemented its fiber optics and communications businesses. In 2003 General Dynamics had $16.6 billion in sales, netting $1.004 billion. By 2004 the company employed 67,600 people, up from 9,000 when Chabraja had joined the company.
Although he was very much admired by coworkers and business journalists, Chabraja was a soft-spoken man who did not care for celebrity status, and he seemed uncomfortable with the public role his leadership of a major defense contractor required. He kept his private life private and his business life focused on the bottom line: "I look at any deal first from the point of view: 'Can I make money?'" he told one reporter (Forbes, January 10, 2000) about his acquisitions. During the 1990s, when the defense industry underwent a contraction of business, he looked to investing capital in enterprises that complemented his company's existing businesses and that were only marginally successful or unsuccessful, believing that such companies could be made profitable through prudent cuts in expenses and aggressive marketing. "Generally, we bought businesses at reasonable prices and improved them," he told another reporter (BusinessWeek Online, March 27, 2000). He was driven by a belief that good management could solve most problems by focusing on what the marketplace demanded coupled with an understanding that economic reality meant that any business would face temporary downturns in business and therefore should look for long-term profitability.
See also entry on General Dynamics Corporation in International Directory of Company Histories.
sources for further information
Banks, Howard, "General Dynamics Like a Phoenix," Forbes, January 10, 2000, p. 86.
Rubenstein, Bruce, "Back Scratching in the Boardroom: Should Law Firm Partners Sit on Clients' Corporate boards?" Corporate Legal Times, January 1995, www.aaronlaw.com/articles/archive%20articles/article01.html.
Serwer, Andy, "General Dynamics: In War and Peace, General Dynamics Is Wall Street's Favorite," Fortune.com, November 12, 2001, http://www.fortune.com/fortune/investing/articles/0,15114,373216,00.html.
—Kirk H. Beetz