Jim Ashton: Turnaround Guy
After a long day of duck hunting on the Mississippi River, the Ashton men gathered in the family’s small cabin for food, camaraderie, and male bonding. As the youngest son, Jim Ashton relished the chance to kick back with his father, two older brothers, and uncles around the fire. Once everyone was relaxed, one of Ashton’s uncles would always break out a slideshow — of his most recent engineering project.
“I was born an engineer,” Ashton says with a chuckle. His father, two uncles, and his brothers George and Bill were all civil engineers and graduates of the University of Iowa. In fact, one of the uncles (the one with the slideshow) was also a professor at the UI College of Engineering.
“It was obvious I was going to be an engineer, too,” Ashton laughs.
Spurred by Sputnik
After a good but unremarkable academic career in high school, Ashton came to Iowa City and transformed himself into an extraordinary scholar. He got a B+ in Rhetoric as a first-year student, which was the lowest grade he ever received. He was the valedictorian of his UI class in 1964 with what was the highest grade point average in the history of engineering at Iowa.
Those undergraduate years at Iowa meant a lot to Ashton. Although he went on to earn graduate degrees at MIT (MS, PhD) and Harvard (MBA), his loyalty to the University of Iowa is very strong. He believes the engineering education he received at Iowa was exceptional, and prepared him well for his graduate studies and career. In the early 1960s, his mentors at the University of Iowa encouraged him to take new courses on computer programming and numerical methods for engineering. “That wouldn’t have happened at very many schools,” Ashton says. “I would never have been prepared like I was if it weren’t for Iowa.”
But Ashton didn’t spend all his time as an undergraduate hammering away at the books. He ran cross country as a walk-on and belonged to the athletic fraternity. “I have a very warm feeling toward the four years I spent at Iowa,” Ashton says. “Not only do I think I got a super education there, but I also enjoyed school and had a lot of fun.”
After graduation, Ashton got a National Science Foundation fellowship for graduate study at MIT, where he completed a master’s degree and a PhD in just two and a half years. It would have been even faster, but once MIT officials realized how quickly Ashton was moving through the program, they threw some obstacles in his way to slow him down.
Doing the Right Thing
Ashton’s star continued to rise at General Dynamics, where he led the group that developed and built the F-16 fighter plane, one of the most successful airplane programs in the history of the U.S. military. The first F-16 rolled onto the runway in 1978, and the fighters are still being built for export today. “To this day, if an F-16 flies by or I see one on television, I get this warm feeling,” Ashton says.
After Ashton’s great success with the F-16, the chairman of the board at General Dynamics asked him to take on the nuclear submarine program. Ashton agreed, and stepped into what he calls an “unbelievable mess.”
Ashton, who had been on track to take over the top job at General Dynamics, now found himself trying to clean up a quagmire of waste and mismanagement. Ashton says he reflected a lot on how best to manage the problem, but he never once thought about ignoring it. “It would have probably been good in some ways for my career, but that wasn’t one of the options,” he says. “Good Iowa people don’t do that.” Ashton took his concerns to the top at General Dynamics, and he was summarily fired for his efforts.
“I think I did the right thing,” he says. “But it changed everything.”
It was a major setback, but Ashton moved on to new challenges. He developed a reputation as a “turnaround guy,” who could take on a floundering company and make it profitable and functional. At FMC Corporation in Minneapolis, for example, he took on a poorly performing defense company and transformed it into a thriving business with $37M in profits. He achieved similar results at a number of other companies.
How do you do that? In part, Ashton credits his father, a manager at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “Some of it’s Iowa values,” he says. “It clearly goes back to my dad and how he thought about other human beings. It has something to do with having a fundamental belief in the dignity of other people.”
His belief that people by and large want to do good, meaningful work has had amazing results. Ashton isn’t afraid to ask people to work hard and strive for difficult goals. In the end, he says, it’s about trusting people and believing in them.
Ashton’s considerable career success, along with his love for the University of Iowa, led him to look for a way to make a difference in the world. His generous gifts helped make the renovation and expansion of the UI engineering building a reality in 2001. With his brother Bill, who also ran cross country at Iowa, he helped create a beautiful cross country course in 2004. And he’s established two named professorships in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering to honor his brothers, Bill and George.
“I’ve had the good fortune to make some money, and I don’t have the ambition to see how much I can spend,” Ashton says. He says the university did a wonderful job helping him get a superior education in every way. He says he hopes his gifts will help the university extend the same opportunities to others.
Ashton and his wife Glenda live in Dallas; they have five children and 12 grandchildren. People often ask the 72-year-old when he’s going to retire. “The answer is, I don’t have any plans to retire,” Ashton says. “I get to do all kinds of fun things now. My career hasn’t always gone the way I thought it was going to, that’s for sure. Some of it wasn’t fun. Mostly, it’s worked out wonderfully to my advantage. I think I’ve done some useful and worthwhile things. You can’t feel much better about what you do than that.”