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John C. Bierwirth, 89; led Grumman in troubled era

During Mr. Bierwirth’s tenure, Grumman developed sophisticated aircraft, including the F-14 Tomcat fighter.

Thom O’Connor/New York Times/File 1983

During Mr. Bierwirth’s tenure, Grumman developed sophisticated aircraft, including the F-14 Tomcat fighter.

NEW YORK — John C. Bierwirth — who led the Grumman Corp., one of the nation’s largest aircraft makers, through challenging times in the 1970s and ’80s — died Sunday at a hospice in Freeport, N.Y., on Long Island. He was 89.

The cause was congestive heart failure, his family said.

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He fought off takeover attempts and bankruptcy, but failed in his quest to diversify the company with civilian products, such as the disastrous Flxible city buses. As president, chief executive, and then chairman of Grumman from 1972 to 1988, Mr. Bierwirth presided over a sprawling company with a storied past.

It produced some of the US Navy’s most renowned warplanes, including the F6F Hellcat in World War II, and it built the lunar module that landed on the moon in 1969.

It was also Long Island’s largest employer, with more than 23,000 workers, one that used to dispense free Christmas turkeys to its employees.

Long Island business and civic leaders called him “an almost mythical figure” who for a time owned an old-fashioned Checker cab to provide more leg room for his lanky frame.

During his tenure, Grumman’s assets grew to $800 million in value, from $100 million; it won coveted aerospace contracts, such as one for NASA’s space station; and it developed some of the US military’s most technologically sophisticated aircraft, including the F-14 Tomcat fighter. He spoke of “marrying electronics with computer programming, then putting wings on it.”

Mr. Bierwirth was nonetheless unable to achieve his goal of building a new sort of Grumman, one divided evenly between military and nonmilitary work. Efforts to branch into civilian products such as shipping containers and solar energy panels in addition to Flxible buses were also unsuccessful.

The buses received unwanted attention after a Grumman subsidiary sold 850 of them to New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority in the early 1980s. When many were found to have cracks in the undercarriages and steering columns, the MTA withdrew the fleet.

Grumman lost $134 million on the bus venture before selling it in 1983.

Ten years earlier, however, Mr. Bierwirth, who was Grumman’s president, drew praise in the industry for saving the company from financial failure and the loss of thousands of jobs. Cost overruns on its 1969 Navy contract for 336 F-14 Tomcat fighters had soared to $7 million a plane, but Mr. Bierwirth persuaded the Defense Department to cover some losses.

Some senators and House members complained that the Pentagon’s redoing the contract amounted to corporate welfare. Senator William Proxmire, Democrat of Wisconsin, said that Grumman’s request to be covered on its losses amounted to blackmail.

Mr. Bierwirth helped lift the company when he sold 80 F-14s to the Shah of Iran, who gave Grumman a loan toward the cost of building them.

In 1978, Mr. Bierwirth again drew criticism when he decided to sell one of Grumman’s most profitable units — its business jet division, maker of the Gulfstream — after minority shareholders demanded that Grumman give them more say in the management or buy them out.

The decision to sell came after a confrontation between Mr. Bierwirth and shareholders in Manhattan during a blizzard. He explained the sale by saying the company needed the cash.

Three years later, he interrupted a vacation on to fend off a takeover bid by the LTV Corp. Mr. Bierwirth and his board rejected the conglomerate’s offer and led the fight when LTV pressed on as a hostile suitor.

One of Mr. Bierwirth’s tactics was to appeal to the intense loyalty of Grumman’s employees by asking them to buy company stock to prevent LTV from getting it.

Still, some said that by refusing the LTV bid. Mr. Bierwirth did a disservice to Grumman shareholders.

In 1986, Mr. Bierwirth signed a contract to sell 99,150 aluminum mail trucks to the Postal Service in a joint venture with General Motors.

Many are still in use.

He retired in 1988.

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