Of the many aerospace CEOs I interacted with during my eight years as Aviation Week’s business editor, L-3 Communications’ co-founder Frank Lanza was the most colorful. Starting in 1997 with the discarded defense units of the old Loral Corp., Lanza grew L-3 into a defense and homeland security colossus. The fast-growing company saw its stock price rise more than 800% and became a darling of Wall Street – though Lanza didn’t necessarily return the love. He labeled analysts who disagreed with him “morons” and sent them scathing faxes. At a Credit Suisse/Aviation Week finance conference, I witnessed him give a pointed challenge to critics in the audience. “Go ahead, short our stock,” he said. “I dare you.”
Lanza was also touchy about his status as one of the industry’s oldest CEOs. At the end of my first interview with him, at the end of 2004, I casually asked for his age. He wouldn’t give it to me. “That’s okay,” I said. “We’ll look it up.” Whereupon Lazna turned to my boss, Editor-in-Chief Tony Velocci, and said, “Tony, I want you to order him not to print my age.”
We did print it (he was 73), but Lanza bristled whenever he was asked why he hadn’t publicly designated a successor. In 2006 he took ill, but insisted on following through with a scheduled interview with me via telephone. He downplayed his illness as “acid reflux” and bristled at my question about L-3’s failure to designate a successor. “The only thing we don’t have is someone designated to be the CEO,” he responded. “But neither does half of corporate America. What’s [General Dynamics CEO Nicholas] Chabraja’s succession plan? Let’s not make a big deal about this succession plan bullshit.”
It would soon turn out to be a very big deal. A few days later I molded our interview into a Q&A, “closed” it with our copy desk and sent the pages to the printer. Early the next morning, as I was walking my dog, I got an email from our Paris bureau chief, Robert Wall: “Lanza dead.” We scurried to pull back the pages and note Lanza’s passing at age 74.
So here is his final interview, which came to me as a matter of fate. In an age when many senior executives never stray off the programmed message, I miss his unscripted candor. Frank, it’s just not as fun without you. And I’ll bet those analysts secretly miss their faxes.
Click the image to read the full interview