McBee of Tracor riding high in high-tech saddle

Frank McBee Jr. is a Texas-sized man who was trained as a mechanical engineer and who takes a particular interest in buzzards (they're ''intelligent'' and they ''do all kinds of funny things'').

As chairman and president of Tracor Inc., Mr. McBee as been doing a few smart things himself.

The low-key executive has shepherded his Austin-based electronics company virtually unscathed through the current recession. And the diversified firm is rapidly rising in the head-butting world of electronics.

Tracor makes a bewildering array of products with tongue-twisting names--digital signal averagers, passive electronic countermeasures, gas and liquid chromatographs - which Tracor customers seem to be able to pronounce just fine.

The firm is probably most widely known in the defense-electronics trade. It is the leading producer of ''chaff''--a metallic material like steel wool used on aircraft to confuse enemy radar. But it also makes scientific instruments, fuses for automobiles, sonar systems, and marine navigation equipment, among other things.

If there is one element that holds this pastiche of products together, it is technical know-how.

The company likes to follow a sort of technology divide-and-conquer strategy: It develops brainpower in a particular area and then searches for gaps in the market to move into. From there, Tracor builds on its research and development and often branches out into related products and designs.

''Tracor tends to focus on market niches,'' says Michael Carstens, vice-president and research analyst with Warburg Paribas Becker-A.G. Becker Inc. , the brokerage and investment banking firm.

''What they do is identify smaller submarkets--and then dominate those.''

The strategy is working. In the past five years the company has turned in Texas-size profits: Sales have jumped 23 percent per year, net income 31 percent , and earnings per share 22 percent.

Last year, the company's $371.1 million in sales was 18 percent ahead of the pace in 1980, while net income was up 35 percent.

''The real base and foundation it was built on was acoustic technology,'' says Joseph Rugilio Jr., an analyst with E.F. Hutton & Company Inc., a brokerage firm. ''Now they have spun off into a variety of other areas.''

Tracor's technical prowess goes back to its origins. The company was founded in 1955 by several University of Texas researchers and a lawyer who set up shop in a converted downtown grocery store.

At first primarily a research and development firm, the group soon began producing some of the ideas coming off its drafting tables. As cash flow grew, so did the company appetite for snapping up other businesses.

Then, in the late 1960s, Tracor ventured forth with a line of computer products that nearly ended its meteoric rise for good. Profits plummeted, and so did the company's cash reserves.

''We were probably broke and didn't know it,'' says Mr. McBee, looking back on the wreckage. There was, he says, a moral in the debacle: ''Don't attack IBM. Attack someone else.''

Like the relief pitcher who takes over with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, McBee came in as president in 1970. He dumped weak product lines and directed the company back to areas where its research was strongest.

Today the company employs some 8,000 people in 17 states and half a dozen countries overseas. Locally, Tracor has become something of a Cinderella-success story. It was the first of what has become a long line of high-tech and electronics companies in the area. At least 12 other area companies have now spun off from Tracor.

Located in a hilly, tree-studded section of east Austin, the firm is now the fourth-largest employer in the area.

And the roster is likely to grow. Perhaps the biggest area of promise lies in defense work, where the company records about 35 percent of its sales. Electronic gadgetry is one of the fastest growing areas of the military. Government outlays for electronic space and defense equipment should top $27 billion this year, predicts Richard L. Whittington, a securities analyst with Bache Halsey Stuart Shields Inc. They could double, to about $53 billion by 1986 .

Tracor is well positioned to siphon off defense business. Aside from being a major supplier of chaff, the company produces electronic decoys for missile systems and other passive electronic countermeasures, one of the booming areas of defense spending.

It also does extensive consulting work for the military in sonar- and antisubmarine-warfare systems. Tracor scientists are involved in marine, biomedical, and telecommunications research as well. The firm is a leading supplier of OMEGA navigation systems for ships and aircraft. More recently, its marine satellite systems have made inroads in the marketplace.

If there is a chink in the company's armor, it should be in its components business, since so many of the fuses, switches, and relays Tracor makes go to the ailing automobile industry.

But by screening contracts and watching inventories, the company actually boosted profits in this area by 50 percent in 1981.

The company has, however, stumbled in at least one area. Punishing interest rates and jitters over tax-law changes have prompted customers to shy away from investing in new laboratory equipment, including some of Tracor's medical instruments and analyzers used to test impurities in food and water.

But McBee sees these and other areas picking up in the next few years. ''We've got a lot of growth opportunities in nearly everything we're doing,'' he says.

One reason for the company's steady rise, analysts say, is McBee himself. Although firmly in control, he gives managers a lot of leeway, and he has been successful at luring top-notch technical people.

And the president recently inaugurated a cash award program for innovative research work.

''It is a very well-managed company,'' says Paul Rickert, analyst with Montgomery Securities, the brokerage and investment-banking firm. ''Tracor is successfully navigating the recession.''

McBee knows much of the company's success hinges on attracting--and stimulating--brainpower.

Sitting beneath an impressionistic painting of--what else? --a group of buzzards, the chairman says: ''We believe the backbone of the company is our scientists and engineers.''

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