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Gumbel.jpg (39932 bytes)Corporate Colonel — Marine officer heads largest industrial employer in Eastern NC

(Reprint from the Havelock NC News, January 1, 2004)

John Gumbel has a tendency to show up for work in what looks like a green jumpsuit.

When he attends suit-and-tie affairs, his collars bear silver eagles and multicolor ribbons replace designer logos.

He's a Marine Corps colonel, who just happens to be the CEO-equivalent head of Eastern North Carolina's largest industrial employer. By formal title, he's the commanding officer of the Naval Air Depot at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point.

In reality, he's the CEO of one of the most often heard of, yet least understood businesses in the state. The “jumpsuit” is military issue flight gear, and whenever he gets the chance he likes to fly in the end product of the vast 144-acre, nearly $1-billon complex he's currently commanding.

In Marine Corps circles, he's a rarity. The average colonel in the Marine Corps can be found leading forces in the 2,000-5,000 personnel range, but his organization is made up of 99 percent civilians.

Gumbel's command lists over 4,000 personnel, of which less than 50 are Marines. The rest are government civilians, numbering over 3,800 and some 250 contractors.

Unlike other CEOs who spend a lifetime moving up the ladder for what they hope will be a long tenure at the helm, Gumbel knew the day he was presented the NADEP colors in a change of command ceremony steeped in military tradition, that his tour would probably only last two years. “It's a cycle,” he explains.

“You do two years as the executive officer, and then two as the commanding officer.” Civilians probably wonder what a Marine colonel is doing in charge of an industrial complex pulling in an average of $800 million a year.

For the answer, they need only remember his military origins.

“It's a case of having military leadership for what is truly a military command,” he explains. “And because we deal with predominantly Marine Corps assets, the commander is a Marine.”

The depot defies simple descriptions.

Gumbel has a favorite method. “I like to use the example of a 1967 Ford Falcon,” he said. “If you take it to your local Ford dealer and ask for a new alternator, they'd probably chuckle. They'd explain what you really need is a rebuilt alternator, not a new one.

“That's what we do here, on a much larger scale. We are working on aircraft that can be up to 35 years old. Original equipment for these airframes is not sitting on a shelf waiting for us to order, so in many cases we create our own.”

Gumbel says the skill and technical expertise required to design and create parts and assemblies from scratch takes the NADEP workforce into a special category. “A big misconception is that this is assembly line work,” he said. “These are not simply mechanics. They are artisans.”

From the simplest small repair patch pressed from sheet metal to multi-million dollar helicopter rotor assemblies and jet engine components, the depot artisans can handle it all, said Gumbel.

Staying with his car-repair analogy, he pointed to the greatest difference. “When your car breaks down, you pull it to the side of the road and call for a wrecker. A military aircraft on the other hand stands the chance of falling out of the sky.” He speaks from first-hand experience.

As a Naval flight officer, he is keenly aware of aviation safety and all that it involves. He arrived in North Carolina in 1981 as a first lieutenant assigned to Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron (VMAQ)-2.

When he wasn't flying as an electronic countermeasures officer in a four-seat “Prowler,” he was busy as a squadron maintenance officer. He admits that as a young Marine officer when he rode by the depot, he never imagined he would one day be the commanding officer.

If he had to compile a “been there-done that” list of qualifiers for his current command it would take hours.

By the time he arrived at the depot in July 2001, he had already earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in economics from UCLA (1977), Master of Science in Defense Systems Analysis from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey (1987) and was a 1998 distinguished graduate of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, with a Master of Science in National Resource Strategy.

His Marine Corps duties included plenty of deployments, including what he calls “a short tour” with VMAQ-2 during the first Gulf War. “I was one of the last to arrive and had maybe a dozen combat sorties before the war ended,” he said.

His career also took him by way of Headquarters Marine Corps where he was a manpower analyst and eventually was assigned to the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, where he served as a military assistant to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition.

It takes prodding to get him to talk about his past.

He much prefers talking about the depot, except when one subject comes up. The next round of base realignment and closure (BRAC) hearings will come during his “watch,” but he declines to speculate about what might happen.

At one time there were six Naval Aviation Depots, and previous BRAC hearings have trimmed the number to three. The closing of depots in Alameda, Ca., Norfolk, Va., and Pensacola, Fla., had a significant impact on the current operation at Cherry Point.

Much of the work and many of the artisans displaced by the previous closings was shifted to eastern North Carolina to the Cherry Point Naval Air Depot. Every square inch of the 1.34-million square feet of production space at his disposal is, in his own terms “chock-a-block full.”

When he's asked to speak to chambers of commerce and civic groups he likes to discuss the possibility of cooperative efforts with the county and state governments teaming up to provide “high bay warehouse spaces” on federal land.

The additional space would serve as an incentive to attract aviation commercial enterprises to the area.

The production cycle at the depot is numerically staggering. Averaging 150 aircraft, 500 engines and 45,000 components a year, the depot workforce is on a 24-hour three-shift cycle interrupted only by weekends and the occasional holiday.

Comparisons to civilian industrial production and business models are easy for Gumbel, who says the depot uses proven commercial techniques, mixed with military needs. He speaks of industry-wide business management tools launching into explanations of “Theory of Constraints, Lean and Six Sigma” with the same ease the average mechanic might say “pass the wrench.”

“Anybody that's in industrial production is well aware of these terms,” he said. “It's not the same depot that started here 60 years ago.”

A former depot commander visited him a few weeks ago he recalls. Retired Marine Corps Colonel Jim Johnson was the depot commander in the late 1960s. “I showed him around,” said Gumbel “And I remember his comment. He said, ‘God, you've turned this into a business.' — I guess you could say in many ways we have.” He refers to “the bottom-line” but says because of the military nature of his business, there are major differences.

“For instance, what we would call a required surge capacity, in private industry might be seen as excess capacity.”

“We need that capacity in case we have to ramp up in time of war, so for us it's readiness, not excess.”

The military readiness needs that serve as a focal point for the depot make for some interesting developments he said. “I've had calls from commanders aboard ships in the Mediterranean asking for support,” he said.

“And without the need for a contract, I can usually have an answer fast.”

He grins when asked how much paperwork he has to go through on a daily basis. The day-to-day routine operations of the depot rely on upper level civilian managers with federal pay grades equal to or close to his own.

“They are the corporate memory,” he said. While the commander and executive officer rotate every two years, many of the senior level civilians have put in decades. The civilian management team keeps him abreast of a staggering amount of facts and figures, but when the military wants answers, Gumbel fields the calls.

As a result, he's been doing less flying in airplanes, and more of what his aviation peers call “flying a desk.”

“Not exactly the most fun part of the job,” he admitted. “I fly whenever I get to steal a seat from somebody,” he said with a smile.

As refurbished aircraft near completion, the depot has aircrews ready to take them up for test flights. This puts “the boss” in a strong position to commandeer some “stick-time.” “It's a job ‘benny' to fly in the product,” he says. “I have phenomenal faith in the work done here, and I'll fly in the product whenever I get the chance.”

The additional benefit for Gumbel is those rare occasions when he's up in a helicopter and conditions are right for him to take the controls. “The pilot ‘attempts' to teach me basic helicopter piloting skills,” he said.

His favorite “ride” is now history.

“I really enjoyed the back-seat rides on the F-4 Phantoms,” he recalled. His confidence in flying in “the product” comes from watching the meticulous steps taken by the depot artisans in stripping aircraft to bare skin, and rebuilding them, with state-of the art enhancements designed to add another 10 to 20 years of serviceability in the fleet.

“The workforce here in Eastern North Carolina can not be matched for industriousness, dedication and patriotism,” he said.

As that workforce ages, the depot needs a pipeline of replacements, and on that score he's equally enthusiastic.

In November, the Institute for Aeronautical Technology officially opened within a mile of the depot. It is the centerpiece of the Havelock campus of Craven Community College and will train NADEP artisans for generations to come.

Gumbel calls the IAT, as well as cooperative programs with East Carolina University, North Carolina State University, University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Park University and Mount Olive College “tremendous feeder sources” for new employees.

Gumbel cites another concept his predecessor, Col. Johnson, would be amazed by.

Rather than concentrate on its own in-house production schedule, the depot has been branching out, performing subcontractor services for major aviation commercial enterprises.

The depot has formed partnerships with major manufacturers like Honeywell and Hamilton Sunstrand, in which they have become sub-contractors for the commercial entities.

“We provide the ‘touch labor' and they provide the parts, engineers and transportation,” he explained. “Just last week, I was looking at a check for over $1 million that we received as a result of this sub-contracting effort. “Down the road, we'll looking for even more partnerships with major OEMs like GE, Sikorsky, Boeing and Bell, to name a few.”

The colonel glances at his watch, knowing he has a meeting to prepare for. Asked if he feels any strains of responsibility as he sits at the helm of the ever-expanding industrial complex, his response is swift, drawn from 26 years of Marine Corps experience.

“The complexities of putting out quality, reliable and cost effective aircraft, engines and components are a challenge,” he said.

“But when you compare that to defending a strike package from the back seat of an EA-6B, or to the lieutenant in a Cobra helicopter providing support for the troops on the ground, it's hard to measure.

“They're facing life and death responsibilities,” he said. “We're accountable for making sure they are doing it in the best possible aircraft.”