Sandy Shapiro designs complex antennas for Hughes communications satellites but considers himself a down-to-earth sort of guy. He drives a Chevrolet Impala and thinks General Motors makes good cars.
He, like many Hughes workers interviewed Thursday, expressed satisfaction and some relief that GM had won the checkbook battle for Hughes. While the generally positive tone of the workers’ answers may have been dictated somewhat by reluctance to antagonize the new owner, there appeared to be widespread approval of the GM-Hughes deal.
“There was a lot of uncertainty--some talk about the possibility that we’d be split up,” said Shapiro, 50. “Older people like myself welcome the stability of a major company. It appears GM will allow Hughes to maintain its identity without massive restructuring.”
Shapiro doesn’t share the attitude of some of his co-workers that GM is a primitive, high-volume, metal-bending shop that has nothing to teach the aerospace industry. He said he’s “stimulated” by the idea of combining Hughes’ space technology with GM’s expertise in mass production.
And, he noted, despite the fact that his products are deployed in orbit, what he’s doing is not all that exotic.
“Someday,” he said, “we might be designing antennas for cars.”
A broad spectrum of Hughes workers expressed attitudes ranging from gratitude to mild apprehension about Hughes’ transition from a tightly knit private company to one of several peripheral divisions of a global manufacturing giant.
“I’m delighted,” said Boris Subbotin, who supervises a team of engineers involved in advanced laser design. “They (GM) were my favorites. GM has long been a leader in industrial management techniques. I think the synergism between GM as owner and what Hughes does in high technology will strengthen and improve the aircraft company.”
“I’m pleased about it, but not as pleased as if we’d stayed the way we were,” said Dick Gunter, microelectronic systems division manager and a 25-year Hughes veteran. His family owns three GM cars. “I expect that, being no longer a private company, there’ll be some changes. In the past, we’ve had a fair amount of freedom to explore all types of technological avenues, but that might get restricted, not just because we’ll be owned by GM but because we’ll be accountable to shareholders.”
Emphasis on R&D;
Gunter’s comments were echoed by Randy Luening, a satellite engineer and Fiat owner.
“The atmosphere here has been one where there’s heavy emphasis on R&D; (research and development) funding relatively independent of outside influences. We’re not accountable to shareholders and don’t have to report profits quarterly. Historically, that has enabled Hughes to invest in long-term projects that would bear fruit five to 10 to 15 years down the line.”
Out at Hughes’ research laboratory in Malibu, in the hills overlooking the Pacific, one worker in business services expressed “mixed emotions” about the marriage.
“I don’t know if it’s going to improve things. It’s kind of sad to see a big private organization go public, but it certainly will broaden our horizons,” said the Hughes employee, who asked not to be identified. “This has been a laissez faire organization, and I don’t foresee any change in that.”
Meanwhile, at the microelectronic systems unit in Irvine, David Richardson said he wasn’t surprised that GM won the poker game over Ford and Boeing, the other companies that entered bids.
“Any company with $9 billion in cash can afford to bid a little higher. Their need to be more in the defense business gave them an additional incentive.”
Richardson, who drives a Jeep and whose wife has a Chevy Camaro, said the Hughes-GM combination could help the auto maker in its competition with the Japanese.
“Hughes is certainly a company that has encouraged technological innovation. Our division is doing direct battle with the Japanese and winning.”
None of the workers interviewed expressed concern about losing their generous Hughes benefits. Most were aware that GM’s benefit package is at least as good as theirs.
‘Not That Worried’
“I have some relatives who work in the auto industry and the only thing they worry about is layoffs,” said Mike Wojcik, a systems technician in El Segundo. “I think the aerospace industry is more stable than the auto industry. I’m not that worried. Maybe the higher-ups are.”
Donald H. White, Hughes’ president, conceded that he would have preferred to see the firm remain private and independent but said the GM acquisition was the best alternative. He described the transition as “the end of one era and the start of another.”
“How do Hughes and GM interface? We’ll have to have a lot of conversations with GM management about that over the next several months.”
One Hughes worker--who insisted on anonymity--said employees at the lower echelons of the company already have decided what the first joint project will be.
“We’re going to send a Chevy into space.”
Times staff writer Nancy Rivera contributed to this article.