Bob Thomas: Top-secret B-70 elicited a stunned reaction in 1959
At first glance, the words “sales” and “engineering” just don’t belong together. And yet if you read my résumé, you’ll find that sales of high-tech custom-engineered products and services was my career from 1956-64. What do sales engineers actually do? It’s oxymoronic because at no time do we sell, in the typical sense, anything. We strive to create circumstances that result in clients purchasing our products.
My first four years were spent servicing the aerospace industry, in which I had worked as an engineer, and my second four were spent in the Gulf Coast digitizing the seismic, oil, gas, chemical and petrochemical industries. Outside of being in top management, sales engineering is one of the most lucrative business careers.
I always had competition. If Northrop Aircraft or North American Aviation or Convair San Diego or Pomona, four of my best clients, had a requirement for our products or services, I would be bidding against at least eight competitors. The low bidder almost always got the contracts. My competition was Honeywell, Fairchild, Litton, American Electronics, Kollsman and others.
My main thrust was to establish a rapport with our client project engineers. Having been an aerospace design engineer, I had an advantage here because most of my competitors’ sales reps were not. Through lunches, dinners and golf games (I carried a three handicap in those days), I cemented close relationships at our clients’ project-engineering manager levels.
These engineers came to depend on me to help write the specifications that would be coming out for bid. Why? Through me, our company knew more about what they needed to meet their objectives than they did. This technology was our specialty, not theirs. So I strove to make sure that a client’s specification favored our expertise over our competitors’ and used our off-the-shelf components. This, of course, greatly enhanced our being the low bidder. On average, an exercise like this took about 18 months. With that much proposal engineering time invested, we couldn’t afford to lose bids.
Now for a 1959 true story: In my client’s facilities I had “roving badge” privileges, as did my competitors. Having a top-secret security clearance, I was allowed to visit engineers without escorts. However, at North American Aviation I was restricted from the building that housed the mock-up of the top-secret B-70, Mach 3 intercontinental bomber.
Our company was vitally interested in getting the contract for the engine controls and instruments. This bird was to be powered by four GE J-93 engines, which are huge. The rumors surrounding the B-70 were wild — cruise speed of 2,000 mph with a crew of five. Countermeasures in addition to bomb load. It was to replace the B-52, which was still young.
I told Ben Peterson, chief project engineer and a golfing buddy, that I had to see the mock-up. Ben got me cleared and escorted me to the mock-up building. After being cleared by the guards, we entered. I turned to the right upon emerging from the tunnel and saw the full-size B-70 mock-up. The first words out of my mouth were, “Jesus Christ!” Ben said, “Now you know why we call it the ‘Savior.’”
Bob Thomas is an author and a retired high-tech industrialist who served on the Carson City School Board, the Nevada Welfare Board and the Carson City Airport Authority and as a three-term state assemblyman. His website is http://www.confessionsoftheentr epreneur.com.