Tom Jones was chief executive of the US aerospace company Northrop for 30 years and took it to the top of its field during the Cold War while weathering a series of scandals. He took the company from a secondary aerospace subcontractor to a leading manufacturer of military aircraft, including the F-5 and F-18 fighter jets and the B-2 stealth bomber.
Born in Pomona, California, he was an engineer with Douglas Aircraft during the Second World War and later worked for the Brazilian government, setting up the country’s civil aviation system. He joined Northrop in 1953 and was CEO from 1960 until his retirement in 1990. He was named chairman in 1963.
He heavily promoted the relatively low-cost T-38 trainer jet, and Northrop eventually sold nearly 4,000 around the world. His investments in technology helped Northrop win the B-2 contract. “He built a lot of expensive research facilities on Northrop money,” said John Cashen, one of the three Northrop engineers who hold the B-2 patent. “We couldn’t have built the B-2 without it. He was willing to gamble. It didn’t faze Tom a bit.”
His failures and controversies were as spectacular. Northrup invested more than $1bn in the F-20 jet fighter but cancelled the programme without selling any after the US blocked sales to Taiwan and two crashed during training and demonstration flights. In 1989 the board censured Jones after a scandal involving efforts to sell F-20s to South Korea.
In 1974 Jones pleaded guilty to making illegal contributions to President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign, and the following year, amid allegations that Northrop had paid $30 million in bribes to foreign officials for arms deals, Jones was suspended as chairman. He also signed a consent agreement with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission promising not to make bribes. A few years before Jones’ retirement, Northrop acknowledged that some employees had falsified tests on components for nuclear missiles.
Jones was a friend of President Ronald Reagan and hobnobbed with European royalty and foreign potentates, including the Shah of Iran, who sent him a kilogramme of caviar every year. In retirement Jones, who loved sailing, cigars and fine wine, produced high-end wines from his Moraga Vineyards at his home in Bel-Air. He sold the estate last August to Rupert Murdoch for $28.8m.
Thomas Victor Jones, business executive: born Pomona, California 21 July 1920; married Ruth (one son, one daughter); died Los Angeles 7 January 2014.