Title: President and
Chief Executive Officer of
BWX Technologies, Inc.
Before we get to your current role at BWXT, tell me about your career path before coming to Lynchburg.
I had good long run with NASA, 17 years. At the end, I briefly held the position of Chief Engineer, the agency’s top technical position. Shortly thereafter I was promoted to Associate Administrator, the top non-politically appointed position at NASA. I was overseeing the launch center at Cape Canaveral, the Mission Control Center in Houston and so on. I also oversaw all of the mission areas such as Mars robotics and the Hubble Space Telescope. After my time with NASA, I went into the private industry with Teledyne Technologies. I was there for eight years. When I left, I was running two of Teledyne’s four operating segments.
For some, working for NASA is a childhood dream.
Was it one of yours?
I was born in the early ’60s and recall when Neil Armstrong stepped on to the moon. So, yes—that was a fantasy for me I guess you would say. I didn’t come out of school with a view I would work for NASA, but it did happen and I was gratified that it did.
Looking back, what would you say was your biggest success?
While at NASA, I worked as the program manager for a spacecraft called Gravity Probe B, which was a test of two aspects of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. It was an extremely complicated instrument—it was just hard. We fought against long odds and there was a lot of institutional skepticism. When we launched the probe in April of 2004 and it worked, it was an absolute defining moment for me and the team. It was a 90-minute orbit so we didn’t know for about an hour if it was going to work. We cried when we could see that first image of the spacecraft. It was a release of emotion.
After coming to Lynchburg in 2015 for the COO position, you stepped into the CEO position when Sandy Baker retired last year. How did that transition go?
There was a thoughtful plan in place when they brought me on board. I visited all of our operating sites and plants, met key customers, went to Capitol Hill to establish Congressional contacts, gained exposure to Wall Street, and developed my relationships with the BWXT board of directors. What cemented it all together is I took on strategic planning last year, and we built up an extremely detailed market and financial analysis. It caused me to have contact with probably 200 people across BWXT and enabled me to learn just about every aspect of the business.
What type of workload will BWXT have in the coming years?
We talk about five components of growth. First and foremost, we build all of the nuclear propulsion for the U.S. Navy. That’s 80 percent of our business, and that sector is anticipated to grow robustly as the Navy ramps up to 355 ships. And based on how adventurous the Chinese have become and how assertive the Russians have become, it appears there is bipartisan support to increase the strength of the Navy. That’s good business for us and for Lynchburg.
Second, we have been historically strong in nuclear technical services.
We take our credentials from being owners and operators of nuclear plants into that market and do technical nuclear work for the U.S. government, primarily through the Department of Energy. That market isn’t growing as much but it’s steady, and we expect to gain market share. We just won a big contract for a plant that needs to be cleaned in Kentucky.
The third area we are very bullish on is the Canadian nuclear power market.
We acquired a company in that market last year. And we see growth especially in reactor refurbishment projects.
Those three are our principle lines of business.
The fourth area is we are always on the lookout for a strategic acquisition.
Finally, we anticipate research and development-driven growth. We are funding some internal ideas that we expect will lead to some powerful growth in the future. It’s competitively sensitive right now, but there will come a time where we can talk more about that.
As a leader of over $1.5 billion in business, what do you do to stay organized?
I keep a clean desk, and I try to keep my physical and electronic inboxes clear. When a matter comes before me and I have time to do it, I do it. If I need to file it away, I file it. But at the same time, that’s not what runs my agenda. You still need to have time during the day to run the business and for strategic thinking and planning. So the other big thing I do is I’m very careful about what I let come onto my calendar. I’m accessible; if people need to call or email me, I’m here.
But when it comes to formal calendar time, if someone requests an hour, I give them half. If someone requests a half hour, I give them 15 minutes. For whatever reason in the business culture, there is this view that a meeting lasts an hour.
But it doesn’t—it might last 17 minutes. Cutting down on this time opens me up to more productive work and strategic planning time with my coworkers.
How do you handle conflict in the workplace?
What works best for me is not to let it fester—if I feel some sort of negative conflict, I like to go address it head on. Otherwise it amplifies. I also think it’s an underappreciated fact that a sense of humor is a pretty important tool in an executive toolkit. If there is too much unnatural conflict in a meeting, I think I can help manage it with a little bit of humor or cajoling. However, I am a believer in constructive disagreement. I don’t want to manage that out of meetings because I think the absence of constructive conflict leads to inferior decisions. Constructive conflict is how we form these diamonds that are great ideas.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I think people would call me a collaborator. I like to say, “What do you think about that, James?” or “David, does that make sense to you?” And I think people would tell you that I have a very strong appetite for innovation, whether that’s in business practices or technology.
What is life like for you outside of work?
My wife and I are very physically active; we are always hiking or biking. We are fans of music so you’ll often find us sitting on the porch in the evenings listening to jazz. We are also voracious readers. It’s not atypical for me to knock down 40-50 books a year. And while we don’t take too many trips to Italy, we travel a lot to see our family. We have a daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren in Alabama and a son in California. And a lot of family back in Kentucky where we are both from.
What do you like about living and working in Central Virginia?
I will say that coming to this area and becoming a CEO is a dream fulfilled for me. Lynchburg is such a warm community, and I feel like it is absolutely blossoming. It feels very alive and very progressive. Right on the James River and nestled into the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains—this town is becoming a destination city. I feel lucky to have arrived when I did.