Last year, Huntington Ingalls Industries earned more than $6.8 billion.
Chances are, you’ve never heard of this Virginia-based company. But you should definitely be familiar with its products — nuclear-powered aircraft carriers that are more than 1,000 feet long and weigh 100,000 tons — and you may even know its president and chief executive officer.
C. Michael Petters has led Huntington Ingalls since before it was spun off from Northrop Grumman. Petters is a preeminent shipbuilder who learned his skills through the U.S. Naval Academy and the College of William and Mary, but the foundation of his success goes back even further — all the way to the small German Catholic St. Joseph community in Pasco County.
There, Petters and his siblings worked hard on the family’s orange groves, but still remained focused on education and service. So it’s no surprise that not only has Petters been invited to speak at upcoming commencement exercises at Saint Leo University, but so has his sister — U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Susan Davison.
The Class of 2014 graduation marks a milestone in the Petters’ family history — it’s 60 years after their father graduated from what was then Saint Leo Prep School.
“My parents were committed,” Petters said. “They were committed to the farm and their business and to their acquaintances and all that, but the one thing that they held out there more than anything else was education.”
Petters’ grandfather said each person should strive to learn something new every day. That prompted a daily question from his own father, asking what he’d learned.
“If you said ‘nothing,’ that wasn’t a good answer,” Petters said. “It didn’t matter to my parents whether it was classroom training or not. It was learning, and it wasn’t just words to them. They went the extra mile to make sure they could afford to send us to schools.”
Yet, good schools cost money, something the Petters didn’t necessarily have a lot of. So Mike Petters and his siblings would work their way through school, and even paused long enough to serve their country in the military. Petters would end up on the USS George Bancroft, a nuclear-powered submarine in the 1980s. And sister Susan Davidson would make her career in the military.
Davidson received her commission in 1983, but didn’t begin active duty until 1986 after a short delay when she had to help replant the family orange grove that was damaged in a hard freeze.
Davidson served in Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm in the 1990s, and later in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Two years ago, she assumed command of Defense Logistics Agency Distribution. But they are not the only Petters children who have found success.
“The whole gang has been successful,” Petters said. “We even have a rocket scientist and a helicopter pilot in there. And they’ve all been successful because they have taken this never-stop-learning approach, and made it the drumbeat of their lives.”
Commencement ceremonies are set for May 3, honoring the portion of Saint Leo’s 16,000-student body who have finished this level of their education. However, if graduates walk away from anything after Petters’ remarks, he hopes that it’s with the understanding that education never ends.
“Where you’re from is an asset,” Petters said. “Everything you have done up to today prepares you for what you’re going to be doing tomorrow.”
Published April 23, 2014