Businessweek Archives

Half Audie Murphy, Half Jack Welch


Defense

HALF AUDIE MURPHY, HALF JACK WELCH

Anyone who has seen Patton knows the scene: The general's tanks are rumbling across the fields in pursuit of a retreating German army division, when suddenly they stop dead in their tracks. They're out of fuel, and the resupply trucks aren't anywhere close. So they sit, while the enemy escapes.

"We're not going to let that happen here," vows Lieutenant General William G. "Gus" Pagonis, head of the Army's Central Support Command in Saudi Arabia. As logistics commander, it is his job to make sure that the 350,000 U. S. soldiers fighting the ground war have what they need to defeat Saddam Hussein.

With their all-terrain fuel tankers and repair vans, logistics crews will enter the battlefield, dodging enemy rockets and artillery fire to keep tanks and armored personnel carriers on the offensive. These crews spearhead a massive supply effort managed by Pagonis, who is running the largest military logistics operation in history.

'THE BEST.' Logistics is often regarded as the tedious side of war. But don't tell Pagonis, 49, a logistics lifer. The son of Greek immigrants, he grew up in Charleroi, Pa., a steel town outside Pittsburgh. Despite his height--5 feet, 6 inches--he was a plucky guard on his high school basketball team. After earning a degree in transportation management from Penn State University, he joined the Army. A tour in Vietnam as captain of a transportation command saw him twice decorated after leading his troops out of ambushes under fire.

But if there's a lot of Audie Murphy in the man, there's also plenty of Jack Welch and Peter Drucker. Starting from scratch last August, he has built a distribution network of 50,000 workers and 100,000 trucks, with massive open-air "warehouses" and operating expenses approaching $1 billion. That requires the kind of skill that would test the capabilities of a seasoned executive. It hasn't gone unnoticed. On Feb. 12, on a bleak airstrip in northern Saudi Arabia, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf pinned a third star on Pagonis' collar, elevating him from major general to lieutenant general in the biggest promotion of the gulf war thus far. "He's the best logistics operator I've ever known," Schwarzkopf told BUSINESS WEEK. "Nobody could have done the job better."

Not that the logistics operation has been faultless. Frontline units report shortages of items such as ammunition, spare parts, and electrical generators. Some units are wheeling and dealing to iron out surpluses and shortages. Still, by early February, everything needed to launch the ground war was in theater.

It has taken a monumental effort. Early on, several foreign-flag crews refused to sail into the war zone, forcing Pagonis to order up replacement crews or to get supplies trucked deep into Saudi Arabia from Jedda on the Red Sea. And many of the Ready Reserve ships were so old that it was hard to find crews to operate their steam turbines. In one case, an 80-year-old seaman came out of retirement to help. Then there was the trouble with chocolate. The heat made it melt in soldiers' hands, not in their mouths, so the Army laid out $5.6 million to buy 12 million bars of heat resistant chocolate bars.

Pagonis accomplished all this by what he calls "centralized command/decentralized execution." Like any strong CEO, he delegates almost everything but makes the big decisions on his own. To do that effectively, he needs some method of getting at essential information that doesn't bog him down in extraneous detail. Pagonis' system is decidedly low-tech: "I use three-by-five cards."

Writers of Army reports tend toward the verbose. The three-by-fives keep their accounts and requests for action under control. A major recently tried sneaking a five-by-eight card past Pagonis, but he rejected it. The general responds to about 100 cards a day, usually within 12 hours, with a simple message scrawled in trademark green ink. "O. K." is by far the most common, with an occasional "psm" for "please see me" or "psmu" when the need is urgent.

TWO-MINUTE WARNING. Pagonis' reputation for brevity is well earned. As a lieutenant colonel, he limited all oral reports to two minutes and enforced the deadline with an oven timer. That way, he says, only critical information finds its way to the top. Even now, every morning, he holds a 30-minute meeting for his top 40 officers, and it has never gone past that. He makes everybody remain standing to keep them from digressing.

Out in the field, communication is tougher. The logistics operation of 50,000 troops is a hodgepodge of units from the regular Army, reserves, and National Guard. Military doctrine is the same for all, but managing such an operation on the fly is bound to leave some gaping holes. Knitting them together is a squad of 15 men called the Ghostbusters, charged with getting out among the combat troops, identifying logistics problems, and seeing they get fixed.

The Busters step delicately, making recommendations and getting out of the way. One Buster found that truck drivers were arriving in camps where various units were stationed, with no idea where to drop their cargo. He had gate stations set up to guide the drivers. An obvious solution, but one that had fallen through organizational cracks.

Behind everything Pagonis does is a concern for frontline troops, acquired during his Vietnam days. "The soldiers going into battle get the best and most of everything," says Colonel Roger Scearce, Pagonis' chief of staff. Take latrines: It would be easier to require soldiers to settle for slit trenches. Instead, Pagonis set up an assembly line to churn out prefab plywood outhouses for all but the forwardmost soldiers.

When Prince Turki Bin Nasir Bin Abdul Aziz, a Saudi air base commander, offered to dip into his personal account to build Pagonis a villa with pool and basketball court, the general demurred. But he asked Turki to build a mess hall, which now serves up to 3,800 soldiers.

It is Pagonis and his food service manager, Chief Warrant Officer Wesley C. Wolf, who have managed to provide most Desert Storm troops with access to two fresh meals a day. This policy overturns a decision by Army bean counters several years ago to save money by getting rid of cooks, leaving the Meal Ready to Eat and other infamous shelf-stable foods the only menu items.

WIENER LIFT. Wolf even went a step further by creating his Wolfmobile hot dog and hamburger stands. To supply them, he had to teach the Saudis--who are providing all in-country food, water, and fuel at no charge--to make American-style hot dogs (all beef, of course). Before they got the recipe down, Wolf pulled strings to get space on a cargo plane for 200,000 pounds of wieners.

Pagonis admits that luck has played a large part in Desert Storm's logistics success. Saudi Arabia boasts some of the world's most modern seaports and air bases. Unlike truck convoys Pagonis commanded in Vietnam, which were constantly bombarded by the enemy, the supply lines in Desert Storm have operated under mostly friendly skies.

For years, Pagonis says, he has been arguing with Schwarzkopf and others for more cargo ships, trucks, and forklifts to move goods and troops. Often, he has come out on the losing end. But perhaps as a result of his success, the top brass may be coming around. "I think guys like me need to be reminded every now and then that trucks can be as important as tanks," says Schwarzkopf. Or, as the Pagonis motto goes: "Good logistics is combat power."Russell Mitchell in northern Saudi Arabia, with Seth Payne in Washington


Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
LIMITED-TIME OFFER SUBSCRIBE NOW
 
blog comments powered by Disqus