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John C. Bierwirth, former Grumman exec, dies at 89

Chairman John Bierwirth with Grumman’s new X-29 fighter

Chairman John Bierwirth with Grumman’s new X-29 fighter jet in 1986 (Feb. 21, 1986) Credit: Newsday / Dick Kraus

John C. Bierwirth, a former chairman of Grumman Corp. who helped save Long Island's largest private employer from bankruptcy in the 1970s and from a hostile takeover a decade later, died Sunday of congestive heart failure. He was 89 and lived in Lawrence.

Bierwirth was an attorney by education, and a banking and financial expert by trade. He joined Bethpage-based Grumman, a company of engineers, in July 1972 as a vice president for finance and by 1976 was chairman of the board and chief executive, overseeing more than 20,000 employees.

Bierwirth, a native Long Islander, came to Grumman from National Distillers and Chemical Co., where his father was chairman. "He adapted to the airplane business reasonably quickly," said Norman Lewin, a former senior vice president for technical operations at Grumman, now retired in Hallendale Beach, Fla.

Bierwirth had served in the Navy during World War II as a lieutenant (j.g.) and later earned a bachelor of arts degree from Yale University and a law degree from Columbia Law School. He worked as an attorney in New York for three years and as an assistant bank vice president for the next four before going to work for his father.

"Jack" Bierwirth was tall, courtly, an avid tennis and squash player, and an accomplished fly fisherman, said a friend and associate, longtime Grumman spokesman Weyman Jones. "He fished all over the world," Jones said.

When Bierwirth joined Grumman, it was facing bankruptcy from inflation-related cost overruns on its contract with the Navy for F-14 fighters. Working under chairman E. Clinton Towl, Bierwirth helped Grumman renegotiate the contract and obtain new financing.

In 1981, LTV Corp., a Dallas-based conglomerate, launched a hostile takeover attempt. With the slogan "Beat 'em Back, Jack," Grumman management and employees mobilized around Bierwirth to defeat the effort by discouraging shareholders from selling to LTV. Ultimately, he got a federal court to block the takeover on antitrust grounds.

"It was like making a great play at the Super Bowl and hearing the crowds cheer," Bierwirth told an interviewer seven years later.

Bierwirth retired from Grumman in 1988. Six years later a smaller and weaker Grumman was acquired -- this time with its cooperation -- by Northrop Corp. of Falls Church, Va.

Bierwirth sought to reduce Grumman's dependence on the Pentagon by diversifying into businesses such as buses, solar energy and high-tech refrigeration, said Josh Stoff, curator of the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City. "They went into areas in which they weren't really knowledgeable and they lost a lot of money," he said. However, in a death notice he wrote himself, Bierwirth cited successes in postal vehicles, electronics and computer software.

After leaving Grumman, Bierwirth chaired the Long Island chapter of the Nature Conservancy and was a director of the National Audubon Society and a visiting lecturer at the State University at Stony Brook's Harriman School of Policy and Management.

Survivors include his wife, Marion; two sons, John E., who is superintendent of the Herricks school district, and Warren M., of New York City and France; two daughters, Marion B. Woolam of Albuquerque and Susan B. Arbios of Healdsburg, Calif.; and nine grandchildren.

A memorial service for Bierwirth is to be scheduled.

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