The first thing Dan Grafton plans to do after his retirement May 2 is to enjoy his 6 a.m. cup of coffee on his patio, not in the office. Then he and his wife, Judy, will head to the Gulf of Mexico for a week on their boat, Just A Splash. Later this year, they’ll explore Nova Scotia, and make the Mississippi rounds visiting their four grandchildren, ranging in age from one to six.
Those are just a few items on the long-awaited leisurely to-do list for Grafton, L-3 Vertex Aerospace president, who announced March 8 that he is retiring after 27 years. “I’ll still be around, but just not 60 hours a week, which is down from what it used to be,” said Grafton, with a chuckle.
Grafton, who oversees more than 11,000 employees working from 285 locations worldwide, including 400 employees working from L-3 Vertex’s home base in Madison, said he was fortunate to have served nearly three decades with “a great company and a wonderful group of people whose success reflects a passion and commitment to our customers. We’ve accomplished much over the years, and it’s truly been an honor.”v
Bob Drewes, president and COO of L-3 IS Group, said Grafton not only grew L-3 Vertex into a global market leader in government aviation technical services during his 16 years as company president, but also that “Mississippi has benefited tremendously from Dan’s business acumen and leadership.”
Grafton’s path to the summit was unique. A native of Ellisville, he received a business degree from the University of South Alabama in 1974 and earned an MBA from Mississippi College in 1980. He served four years in the U.S. Air Force (USAF) as a radar equipment technician.
In 1979, while Grafton was working as comptroller of Willowood Developmental Center in Jackson, he answered a newspaper ad for an accounting position with Beech Aerospace Services Inc. (BASI), which was relocating its headquarters from Kansas to metro Jackson. Eight years after he was hired for the position, Grafton was appointed corporate controller and then vice president of administration. In 1989, Grafton was named vice president and COO, and BASI moved to a larger facility in Madison County; a year later, he was appointed president and CEO.
Grafton weathered numerous changes within the company. In 1995, Beech Aerospace became Raytheon Aerospace. In 2001, the company changed its name to Vertex Aerospace, and in 2003, to L-3 Vertex Aerospace.
His list of professional affiliations is impressive: American Management Association, Army Aviation Association of America, Association of Naval Aviation, Association of the U.S. Army, National Guard Association, Naval Aviation Industrial Council, Naval Aviation Museum Foundation, Navy League of the U.S. and the U.S. Air Force Association. He is a life member of the Tailhook Association and serves as a Trustmark board member for both the corporation and the bank.
A lion’s share of his involvement in the business community is spent with the Mississippi Technology Alliance, where Grafton serves as board chairman, but he has also held leadership posts for The Nature Conservancy-Mississippi, Century Club Charities, Institute of Technology Development, Madison County Foundation, Mississippi Partnership for Economic Development, Naval Aviation Museum Foundation and St. Dominic Hospital. A strong United Way supporter, Grafton has led L-3 Vertex to a Pacesetter company for many years, with more than 90% of the company’s home office employees supporting the local chapter.
Grafton, who will continue working part-time as a consultant to L-3 — he’s shopping for office space now — granted the Mississippi Business Journal an exclusive interview.
Mississippi Business Journal: You’ve been such a key business leader for Mississippi. After retirement, will your involvement change?
Dan Grafton: I plan to remain very much involved politically and through economic and community development work, including the Mississippi Technology Alliance, which I currently chair. I hope to help further develop a defense industry cluster in the state, the Madison County Foundation and other projects. I love working with the governor and his team and business leaders in the state on ways to grow Mississippi’s economy and quality of life. It’s the greatest place on earth to grow a business and raise a family. I’m excited about continuing this work, albeit part-time. I certainly plan to have more time for family and recreation with this transition.
MBJ: You work with thousands of employees in hundreds of different workplace cultures. How have you been able to blend those cultures?
DG: We do have close to 300 work locations and, I suppose you could say 300 workplace cultures — with Madison County serving as home office. It is a challenge. How we approach this is aggressively promoting the importance of taking care of employees and our customers through initiatives, such as comprehensive workplace safety programs, ethics training, a great worldwide IT network, a lot of Web-based and written communication and other ways.
But most significantly, our unifying success is due to having great people here in Madison County and at our field sites. We are in the people business. We don’t make tangible products. We are a services company that is 100% dependent on people doing their jobs well every day. It’s about focused management and leadership at all levels, all over the world, to take care of our people and most importantly, our customers. We preach it every day. We’re in constant contact with our site managers, and it’s just about keeping your eye on the ball.
MBJ: What are the greatest challenges of working in such a specialized field?
DG: We’ve talked about the geographic spread and how that is a challenge. Others are probably the same challenges most businesses face — driving down costs, driving up productivity, encouraging innovation so that we retain a competitive edge. Ours is a fiercely competitive business, and we have to never let our guard down and constantly provide best value solutions for our customers.
MBJ: Share with us your thoughts on the state’s business and political climate.
DG: Mississippi is in many ways the envy of other states given our incredible political leadership. Our Congressional delegation and its clout is unbelievable and a testament to their talents and longevity. Gov. Barbour is among the most engaged, talented and effective political figures I’ve ever known. Due to the efforts of all of these state leaders, we are all benefiting from significant tort reform, workforce development and education improvements and economic development projects. What’s more, after Mississippi was Ground Zero of our nation’s worst national disaster in history, our state leaders, especially Haley, have provided a level of leadership and statesmanship that is very rare in American politics today.
And just as important, Mississippi also has an amazing entrepreneurial spirit. Government leaders, as important as they are, don’t create jobs. Our state’s businesses are extraordinarily innovative and creative, with more success stories than one could count. Nissan, Peavey, Viking and SmartSynch are just a few that come to mind.
The Mississippi Believe It! Campaign right now is a significant catalyst that is capturing these strengths we enjoy, and was the brainchild of yet another of our homegrown success stories, The Cirlot Agency. This campaign is bringing to the nation and world’s attention what most of us already know, that Mississippi is an extraordinary and wonderful place to live and grow a business.
MBJ: What are some of the leadership characteristics of your replacement, Ed Boyington, and what will be his focus on business leadership in Mississippi?
DG: I don’t want to speak for Ed, but I can assure you his impact will be significant. He’s a strong and skilled leader, a good friend of mine for many years. I know he is excited and very much looking forward to plugging in on many levels.