Candidate profile: Walt Havenstein, 65, makes case for gubernatorial bid
Walt Havenstein, center, shakes hands with Chris Gamache of Deerfield during the Deerfield Old Home Day parade on August 16, 2014. Havenstein, a Republican candidate for Governor, greeted spectators while hustling to keep up with the parade. His wife Judy Havenstein can be seen in the background, passing out flyers. (WILL PARSON/Monitor staff)
Sitting on a shelf in Walt Havenstein’s home office is a gang, as they’re called, of meerkats.
“Do you know what a meerkat is?” he asks, pointing up to the cluster of small animals, sitting on shelves surrounded by books and tokens from his military and defense career.
During Havenstein’s tenure as chief executive officer of BAE Systems Inc., the animals became a symbol for the company culture, because meerkats survive by putting the needs of the group ahead of their own. Havenstein gave out meerkat awards to employees who exemplified that attitude and even called his leadership team the “Gang of 16.”
“Meerkat behavior (means), ‘Okay, have you left your ego at the door? Are you in here ready to serve in the interest of the enterprise and for our customers, our colleagues and our shareholders?’ ” Havenstein said during a recent interview at his home.
If elected governor, he said he hopes to bring that same approach to the state of New Hampshire, creating an environment where employees feel empowered to contribute but are willing to put their own needs aside for the good of the group when necessary. He’s running because he thinks the state’s economy isn’t growing fast enough, causing young people to leave.
At 65, Havenstein has never held elected office and has no political experience, but he’s no stranger to working with government. At BAE Systems, he helped secure contracts to build some of the U.S. military’s most essential pieces of defense equipment. He has also worked professionally and personally to build
partnerships between companies suchas BAE and public education institutions to make sure New Hampshire students are learning the skills that businesses in the state need.
In the Sept. 9 Republican primary, he will face 32-year-old Andrew Hemingway, an activist and tech entrepreneur. The winner will take on one-term incumbent Gov. Maggie Hassan.
Havenstein moved to New Hampshire in 1999 to be president of Sanders Associates, which BAE Systems bought in 2000. He now lives in Alton with his wife of more than 40 years, Judy. He retired from BAE Systems in 2009 as chief executive officer for the company’s U.S. subsidiary. From 2009 to 2011, he was CEO of Science Applications International Corp., another contracting company. Havenstein also spent 28 years in the Marine Corps.
Creating a culture
BAE Systems’s Nashua branch employed 5,000 people at the height of Havenstein’s tenure and received between $700 million and $1 billion annually in contracts from the federal government. The companywide budget Havenstein managed was more than three times the size of the state’s budget.
When Havenstein joined Sanders in 1999, the company was working on building the F-22 fighter jet, a critical project of the U.S. military. Havenstein set a deadline of Aug. 15, 2000 – 18 months after he arrived – to complete the project. He called the mission “8.15.00.” Havenstein believed that if everyone in the company was focused in one direction, success was attainable.
It was a strategy that worked, his former colleagues say.
“He basically set that goal as the thing the company had to attain, and then he engaged everybody and said, ‘What do you think we need to do to get there?’ ” said Mike Heffron, BAE’s former vice president of engineering and current president of DeLorme, a Maine-based company focused on GPS and tracking technology. “He basically empowered everybody to commit to doing what they needed to do in their part of the business to make sure we all got there.”
Havenstein’s economic plan for the state, “8.15.17”, uses that same approach, only this time with the goal of creating 25,000 jobs by that date. To get there, he plans to cut the business profits tax and regulations, and make job creation the state’s top priority.
Another major project BAE worked on during Havenstein’s tenure was the design of the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, which is designed to withstand improvised explosive devices and is used by troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Walt was heavily involved with the MRAP and getting the government to be able to have those vehicles . . . in theater,” Heffron said. “He knew the men and women who served our country were there, in theater, (and) if those things didn’t work and didn’t work right, there could be a catastrophic event. We just had a mentality that we weren’t going to let that happen.”
Although Havenstein had planned to retire after leaving BAE, he was offered an opportunity to lead SAIC, another contracting company. The company was at a crossroads of determining where to set its priorities as the country’s defense budget was shrinking. Then, nine months into Havenstein’s tenure, news broke that investigators were looking into the company for a $500 million fraud scandal regarding a contract with New York City.
The New Hampshire Democratic Party says Havenstein both failed to stop the fraud scandal and implemented a bad strategy. During his tenure, the company lost 5,000 jobs and its stock value fell. The party’s prime line of attack against Havenstein is to call him a “failed CEO” for this time at SAIC. Party Chairman Ray Buckley has repeatedly declined to comment on Havenstein’s tenure at BAE Systems.
Havenstein says he did implement a new strategy at SAIC, which centered on consolidating the company’s 78 different businesses to create more “punching power” in the market. It was a success, he said, but the fraud scandal hurt the company.
“That occupied about 18 months of my overall tenure there, and so my colleagues know we solved a very difficult problem for SAIC,” he said. “That company was much stronger when I left, both market- wise and from a leadership perspective. . . . Leaders have to deal with the good and the bad and the ugly things.”
SAIC also made $78 million through federal contracts to help implement the Affordable Care Act, a policy Havenstein opposes. Havenstein says that as CEO he could not let his personal political views dictate operations.
Although he managed billion-dollar budgets, Havenstein focused on more than the bottom line, his former colleagues say. Internally, he empowered others and showed an interest in his employees. Externally, BAE formed partnerships with FIRST Robotics and the University of New Hampshire aimed at training the next generation of engineers.
David Herrick, a former technical director at Sanders who later started Herrick Tech Labs in Manchester, said Havenstein’s focus on individuals impressed him from the start. Shortly after Havenstein came to Sanders, he came by the research and development lab Herrick ran off the main campus and talked to each employee. Later, when Herrick decided to leave Sanders and start his own business, Havenstein sought him out to talk.
“He took time out from his schedule and invited me to meet on his back porch at his house on a weekend afternoon and talked to me about this to make sure that I really wanted to do this,” Herrick recalled. “I was just so impressed that some guy who’s in charge of over 3,000 people would take the time to do that.”
Under Havenstein’s tenure, BAE also put a new focus on bringing young, local engineers into the company. At the time, the company was barely hiring any engineers from UNH. BAE made a $1 million donation to the school and helped the college of engineering realign some of its program around BAE’s needs. The university and company started a partnership that resulted in more UNH engineers interning, and getting hired, at BAE Systems. By the time he left, BAE was hiring 70 percent of its interns from UNH, Havenstein said.
Through FIRST, BAE helped bring that interest in engineering back into elementary, middle and high schools. The earlier you can capture a student’s imagination, Havenstein says, the more likely they are to stay with engineering and math through high school and into college. He’s now vice chairman of the board at FIRST.
“I just can’t even explain to you how much fun it is. It’s T-ball for geeks, right? And it is just absolutely fantastic and inspiring,” he told leaders at Plymouth State University recently.
As governor, Havenstein says he’d focus on recognizing and rewarding programs that create links between education and future jobs. That’s really what his campaign is all about: creating good jobs and keeping New Hampshire’s young people here.
Ask Judy, and there’s no one better suited for the task.
“I’ve seen it everywhere Walt works,” she said. “He has the unique ability to inspire people to be the best they can be.”
(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or email@example.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)