WHAT'S SO GREAT ABOUT ADMIRAL BOBBY INMAN? He has never earned a nickel of profit. But savvy financiers, impressed by his ideas on restoring America's edge, are behind him in a bold new business venture.
By Brian O'Reilly REPORTER ASSOCIATE Lorraine Carson

(FORTUNE Magazine) – ADMIRAL Bobby Ray Inman is on a mission to save the country, or at least its economic place in the world. Pretty grandiose, you say, if not cockeyed. So why are a dozen of the biggest names in American business, from Dallas real estate tycoon Trammel Crow to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and New York television titans Laurence A. Tisch and Thomas S. Murphy eager to back him with millions as head of an ambitious new enterprise? This 55-year- old retired Navy officer, one backer admits, ''has never run a profit- making company.'' What do they see in him? Certainly not movie-star good looks. Inman -- he hates his given name, Bobby Ray, tolerates Bobby, and doesn't mind Bob, but those who work with him call him Admiral -- has a gaptoothed smile, slightly Oriental eyes, and a pair of eyebrows usually writhing out of control. Nor can he boast of polished grace on a ballroom floor. ''I'm so clumsy I can't walk across a room without bumping into the furniture,'' he laments. He is simply one of the smartest people ever to come out of Washington or anywhere, who dazzles just about everybody he meets. He pulled off a military career practically unmatched in the history of the Navy, without firing a shot. Thus, when Bob Inman says he has been tapped to head a holding company named Westmark Systems that will acquire defense electronics companies, ears perk up. Nor do those familiar with him laugh when he says Westmark will show American industry how to exploit new technology faster and reinvade lost markets. He has gotten crazy ideas off the ground before. No less a venture, in fact, than an unprecedented four-year-old research consortium to develop advanced technology for a radical new supercomputer system that would try to beat anything coming out of Japan's government-backed ''fifth generation'' effort. Members of the consortium, called Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corp., include such archrivals as Control Data, Honeywell, and NCR -- but not IBM or Apple -- as well as RCA, Gould, and Allied-Signal. When Inman quit the government he was enlisted to head the venture, setting off a wild competition by 57 cities in 27 states hoping to snare the technology incubator, inexplicably known as MCC. Austin, Texas, won out when the state and several Texans promised $35 million of help, from real estate to money for new professorships at the state university there. MCC's endeavors will take perhaps a decade to bear fruit, and it is far too early to pronounce it a success. But powerful folks were sufficiently impressed to want Inman as chief executive of Westmark, which may be just down the street in Austin if Inman has his way. The new company, to which Inman will move in January, is owned by Mason Best, a Dallas investment bank created two years ago by Elvis Mason, former chairman of Dallas's big InterFirst Bank, and Randy Best, a Texas entrepreneur. With an infusion of $100 million from wealthy investors, Mason Best quickly bought food producers, a publishing company, and three greeting card companies. ''They've done extremely well,'' says investor Robert Dedman, a Dallas centimillionaire and a Mason Best investor. Now Mason Best has decided to set up Westmark as a vehicle to move into defense electronics -- ''one of the few parts of the economy that's growing in real terms,'' in one backer's words. Mason Best has its eye on ''two or three'' electronics companies that make subassemblies for large weapon systems. Inman says Westmark's sales could eventually hit $1 billion a year. ''Our ability to raise capital will not be a restraint on growth,'' says a Mason Best spokesman. If anything, Inman's ambitions are greater now than when he launched MCC. Friends say he's frustrated and worried about how slowly American corporations -- including some of the owners of MCC -- adopt new technologies and turn them into products. Westmark, he says, will be a model of how that can be done. Can he pull it off? Hard to tell. His career, however brilliant, is shrouded in secrecy. For most of his 30 years in government Inman starred in military intelligence. From 1977 to 1981, he headed the nation's most secret and sophisticated electronics and data analysis organization, the National Security Agency, and then spent 18 months as deputy director of Central Intelligence. He keeps secrets at MCC as well, so that member corporations get first dibs on any discoveries. One nonsecret about Inman is his extraordinary mind, which propelled him through the intelligence community so fast he became one of the very few ever to make four-star admiral by the age of 49. Inman has demonstrated his wits practically since he was born, the second of four children, in the tiny town of Rhonesboro in east Texas. His father owned a gas station, and the family's means were modest. In grammar school Inman was a whiz kid on a nearby radio quiz show, often bringing home prizes. He breezed through nearby Mineola High School by age 15, though that had some disadvantages. ''I was a little squirt,'' he says, ''5-foot-4 and 96 pounds when I graduated.'' To keep from being bullied he tutored the athletes he admired, and helped other students run for school offices. ''I acquired protectors,'' he recalls with a grin. At 19, grown to 6 feet, Inman graduated from the University of Texas with a B.A. in history. For a while he taught at a grammar school, hoping to go to Stanford Business School. Then the Korean war broke out. With the draft looming, Inman signed up for the Navy's officer candidate school and soon found himself decoding secret messages on an aircraft carrier. In 1953 he was in Washington, hoping to be let out of the Navy early. Just then, an American cryptographer in Paris was discovered to have a Communist girlfriend, and Inman was dispatched to replace him. After a stint at the Navy's intelligence school in Washington, he got a chance in 1958 to impress the brass. & THE NAVY WAS worried that mainland China would invade Taiwan, and the Pacific Fleet was heading to the area as a precaution. One night while Inman was on duty, one of the three commanders who regularly briefed Admiral Arleigh Burke, then Chief of Naval Operations, came in, quickly read a stack of intelligence reports, and sped off. Based on the commander's analysis the admiral began dispatching warships, until word came back that the information was wrong. Inman was called before Burke. Blessed with a nearly photographic memory, he was able to recall each of the hundreds of dispatches he'd read that night and answer questions. He was promptly named to replace the disgraced commander. In a whirlwind of promotions, Inman ascended up to director of naval intelligence, taking over in 1977 as head of the NSA. There he set out to master Congress's unwieldy budgeting process, which required him to make financial projections five years forward while spending money budgeted five years earlier and appropriated two years before. All this in a top-secret budget of perhaps $15 billion, hidden away in dozens of other agencies' budgets. ''Anybody who says I never ran a profit-making company and don't know how to keep track of money ought to try that for a while,'' he says. Mastering the details, Inman testified at appropriations hearings without notes. Senator Barry Goldwater called him ''the most articulate budget explainer I've ever seen.'' Senators trying to learn what the nation's spies were up to loved him too. ''He was called on as the guy who simply gave the facts,'' says Democratic Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware. ''He'd never volunteer information, but he'd never mislead you.'' Inman's main chore was presiding over NSA's vast electronic spying and military communications operation, with its 30,000 employees and awesome banks of powerful computers at Fort Meade, Maryland, and around the world. Inman's evenings were often spent at Washington social functions, but he would get up the next morning at 4 A.M. to review briefcases full of NSA material. ''Bob Inman has no hobbies,'' says Eugene Tighe, a retired Air Force general and close friend, ''except maybe reading. His office was the dullest thing you ever saw. Everyone else might be showing off ship models or something. Bob just had bare walls and books.'' In 1981 Inman made four-star admiral and was elevated to deputy director of the CIA. He quit 18 months later amid reports of friction with director William Casey and the Reagan Administration. After a 60-day, 11,000-mile driving tour of the Western U.S. with his wife, Nancy, and his two sons (one now a Navy pilot, the other at Annapolis), he sifted through hundreds of job offers. He selected an offer from William Norris, the founder of Control Data, a major supplier of computers to the NSA. In early 1982 Norris had assembled leaders of two dozen technology companies at a country club in Florida, where he urged them to join their efforts to leapfrog Japan's fifth-generation program. Many doubted the approach would work, but Inman decided to give it a try. ''Computers themselves didn't turn me on,'' he says, ''but pulling a disparate organization together that would impact on the nation's ability to compete did.'' The biggest headache, after MCC won unanimous passage of a law that eliminated federal antitrust worries, was finding talent. Inman soon discovered that the 12 corporations that signed up, known as shareholders, weren't sending their best people to Austin for top positions. Just as quickly, he sent people back and started looking elsewhere. ''He had incredible contacts in the scientific and academic community,'' says General Tighe. ''As soon as somebody showed up, he was on the phone asking, 'Is this guy any good?' '' To date, eight of MCC's 11 vice presidents and two-thirds of its 330 scientists have been hired from the outside. All are working on blue-sky solutions to four major technological challenges: raising the computing power of microchips by increasing the number of wires that can be attached to one from 32 to as many as 1,000; computer- aided design of very powerful microprocessor chips; developing faster, more efficient software; and designing advanced computer architecture. The first project has already achieved a breakthrough: MCC's researchers have boosted the number of microchip connections to 328. The advanced computer project, on the other hand, is expected to take ten years. Like other attempts to advance so-called artificial intelligence, its goals include speeding up computers by dividing problems into several parts and solving them simultaneously. Member companies can choose which projects to support, and get first rights to use the technologies for three years. NORRIS SAYS MCC'S progress ''exceeds expectations,'' but some participating companies aren't so sure. ''Inman did a remarkable job of bringing the organization to this point,'' says Joseph Boyd, chairman of the Harris Corp. ''But right now I don't think you can say in any sense that MCC is a success or failure.'' By some crude measures, though, it is working. The number of participating companies has risen from 12 to 21, now including Kodak, Boeing, and Westinghouse. Four years ago a seat on the board cost $150,000, but now newcomers must pay $250,000. That doesn't count what they contribute to MCC's $65-million-a-year budget. Inman gets good marks as a boss, but he is not one of those walk-around managers. ''He's not the kind of person who says to himself, 'Gee, I wonder what they're up to over at computer-aided design today. I think I'll take a look,' '' says John Hanne, vice president in charge of that program. He is at his best as the competent mediator, ruling on a dispute between shareholders on whether technology should be licensed to nonmembers or how a particular research approach should proceed. ''He has a bit of an imperial style,'' says Winston Royce, Lockheed Corp.'s top technical officer working at MCC. ''He listens to us, but he makes up his own mind. It's rare for anyone to convince him. Most of the convincing comes from himself.'' Inman doesn't get angry often. But when someone doesn't perform properly, recalls former NSA general counsel Dan Schwartz, who now does legal work for MCC, ''he gets icy, absolutely icy. Then he delivers a measured shredding. It's a mighty thing to see.'' The real proof of MCC's worth will come when its research starts showing up in its shareholders' new products. For some time, Inman has worried that the member companies will be slow to exploit the consortium's work. He says, ''As we began to make progress at MCC my focus became, 'How are you going to use this?' The companies were quick to say, 'None of your business.' In the absence of knowing what they planned to do, I didn't get a warm feeling they were getting ready to suck it up fast.'' At MCC's September board meeting, Inman surprised members by announcing he had decided to quit. He'd been approached by Mason Best board members months earlier. Westmark Systems will concentrate on military electronics, Inman says, because he is familiar with the products and with government procurement procedures. He adds that the military is more receptive to new technology: ''If you're going to get shot at, it focuses your attention.'' CYNICS WILL suspect that Mason Best is less interested in Inman's fabled brain than in his contacts inside the D.C. Beltway. Inman bristles at suggestions of influence peddling. He views a growing alliance between U.S. corporations and the Defense Department as the fastest way to develop the technology companies need to compete in world markets. It all sounds vague, but he figures one of the best ways to make Westmark successful is to develop high-tech products for the military -- possibly including the ''Star Wars'' program -- and then fashion commercial products from them as quickly as possible. Few companies have ever accomplished that, and Inman will have to cope with military procurement procedures that sometimes drag out the adoption of new technologies for as long as ten years. He is unfazed. ''Some people joke that I see the Defense Department as some form of MITI,'' he says, referring to Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry, which has a mixed record of helping companies develop and export new products. ''I'm not so sure I disagree.'' Becoming dead serious, Inman warns that if American companies don't get the hang of swiftly turning new technology into products, trade imbalances will persist. That spells trade wars, he says, and for a four-star admiral that spells trouble: ''They would weaken or dissolve our alliances, and in a world of fast-moving armies, we don't have an excess of military bases overseas.'' Grandiose talk, all right, from one who sometimes seems less a businessman than just another warrior in mufti. Considering the man's accomplishments, however, maybe we better take him seriously. Larry Tisch and some other sharp money men do.