George M. Bunker: Leadership and Vision

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In early 1956, Martin Corporation President George Maverick Bunker flew to Huntsville, Alabama, for what he anticipated would be a routine courtesy call to an Army major general named John Bruce.

Bunker and his company were on a roll. He had recently authorized the construction of a new facility in Denver to work on the Air Force’s Titan missile program, while other Martin teams plugged away at building a unique satellite launching system called Vanguard for the Navy.

When Bunker sat down for his meeting, he was surprised to hear Bruce offer an unusual opportunity.     

What the Army could really use, said Bruce, was a company to come along and build a plant between Huntsville and Cape Canaveral, Florida, the primary launch site for long-range missiles.  Bruce couldn’t promise any business immediately, but he felt the strategic location would make it an ideal home for a rocket and missile launch center of excellence.

Bunker knew a good bet when he saw one.

By the fall, he had quietly authorized the purchase of 6,777 acres of pasture near a then-sleepy central Florida town called Orlando. Bunker was intent on finishing a job he had begun in 1952: turning the attention of one of the world’s most prominent airplane manufacturers toward the stars.

Beyond the Skies
Just four years earlier, in 1952, Bunker took over the reigns of the Martin Company from its founder, Glenn L. Martin, who was stepping down after 40 years at the helm.

Bunker envisioned Martin as a company destined for diversification, producing everything from rockets and missiles to electronics and communications devices. What Bunker needed, however, was a name to encapsulate it all, so he coined one. He called them “aerospace” technologies and bet the company’s future on them.

Bunker, a notoriously skilled poker player, was living up to his middle name. He had done the unthinkable and built the Orlando plant without a project to work on. But the risk soon paid off. The ideal Orlando location helped Martin land a contract to develop Pershing nuclear missiles in 1958, an experience that would lead to the creation of the Gemini-Titan launch vehicle that helped NASA astronauts dock with other spacecraft in orbit around Earth.  

And still Bunker wanted more—more diversification. So when Grover Hermann, founder of the American-Marietta Company, quietly made it known that he wanted a partner to help oversee his vast collection of chemical, machine, and construction companies, Bunker came calling.

In October 1961, the two companies merged, creating the Martin Marietta Company, which employed 56,000 people in all 48 states and in 13 countries overseas. By 1969, Harvey Aluminum was added to the mix, giving Bunker what he had most dearly sought: a perfectly balanced, “purposely diversified” portfolio.

Zero Regrets
Although renowned for his business acumen, George Bunker spent his 26 years at Martin quietly and steadfastly supporting research, organizational, and philanthropic initiatives of all stripes.

He helped establish the Research Institute for Advanced Studies in Baltimore to develop new technologies for the “benefit and welfare of mankind” and supported a “Zero Defects” policy in Orlando to ensure his company created the safest products available for space exploration, all while donating millions of his own monies to create scholarships across the country.

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Sources and Additional Reading

  • Bromberg, Joan Lisa. NASA and the Space Industry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.
  • Harwood, William B. Raise Heaven and Earth. New York: Simon & Schuster: 1993.
highlights
  • The Army wanted a company to come along and build a plant between Huntsville and Cape Canaveral, Florida.
  • Bunker quietly authorized the purchase of 6,777 acres of pasture near a then-sleepy central Florida town called Orlando.
  • Bunker envisioned Martin as a company destined for diversification, producing everything from rockets and missiles to electronics and communications devices.

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