FROM SUBMARINE COMMANDER TO RED STORM CEO, THE REMARKABLE LIFE OF DOUG LITTLEJOHNS
Tom Clancy has sold millions of books worldwide with his novels of war, heroes, valor, politics, terrorism and, on occasion, even love. Someday, he should write a book about the adventurous life of his best friend.
Doug Littlejohns, best known today as chief executive officer of computer games company Red Storm Entertain-ment in Morrisville, was in a former life a highly decorated British Royal Navy submarine captain and strategist.
There's the ramming of a Soviet sub with his own sub-something Littlejohns won't confirm.
Then there's the time his nuclear boat rammed a dead whale at 25 knots while steaming deep, deep in the ocean. And when the sub hit the whale, a stressed sonar man suddenly decided to go berserk in the control room.
Oh, and how about the time his diesel boat sprung a huge leak while at maximum diving depth in the Mediterranean while chasing a Soviet sub?
Not yet told are stories from the Falklands War, which probably no one will know outside of the official-secrets protectors in Great Britain. All Littlejohns will say is: "I was at sea." Period. End of discussion.
For laughs, how about the time he and 20 other officers went out on the town late at night in Hong Kong and gorged themselves on a big pot of delicious meat. "We were all sticking our hands in; it was great," he said. "Then we found out it was dog.. We all went outside."
Or how about dropping a tool on the head of a senior officer while racing down the hatch of his sub very early in his career? He forever was called "Doug the Thug."
But to get those stories-or pieces of them-one has to pry. "I'm not a star or anything of the sort," he says modestly. "I've just been very lucky."
From chasing Soviet submarines to participating in the Falklands War, the Persian Gulf War and other hot spots, Littlejohns was one of the top submarine commanders and staff officers in Great Britain's Royal Navy. For 30 years he was a warrior in the Cold War, earning two personal decorations from Queen Elizabeth II. Unfortunately, his oath of secrecy with the Navy and the threat of prison if he violates it prohibit him from telling most of his wonderful tales.
From the stories he can relate-or at least allude to-plus an examination of his career record, and an anecdote in the best-selling book Blind Man's Bluff on submarine espionage, it's clear that Littlejohns is a larger-than-life character.
"I was one of those," he said sheepishly when talking about the submariners in Blind Man's Bluff. In fact, he was awarded the prestigious Officer of the Order of the British Empire for what he modestly and coyly calls "doing silly things in submarines."
Here's an anecdote that could be about Littlejohns from Blind Man's Bluff:
Late 1981: HMS Sceptre of Great Britain's Royal Navy
This nuclear-powered British attack submarine collided with a Soviet nuclear sub that she was trailing in northern waters close to the Arctic, according to reports a decade later in the British media. One officer said the Sceptre had lost contact with the Soviet boat for as long as thirty minutes before his boat shook. 'There was a huge noise,' he said, adding 'Everybody went white.'
Littlejohns' service record shows he was in command of the Sceptre, a nuclear attack submarine, from 1981 through 1983. Was he the captain chasing that sub? He can't say.
Anyone who has seen or read Hunt for Red October or read Blind Man's Bluff and other cold war tales knows there are few more dangerous acts than silently tracking another sub. Collisions occur. Near fights happen. And in the Cold War, perhaps no theater of operations was so hotly contested than beneath the waves as East and West struggled to earn military supremacy.
Another passage in Blind Man's Bluff cited the caliber of commanders and crews the British spy submarines were trained to be:
Tightly coordinating their efforts with U.S. submarines, British subs sometimes helped fill in what had become a nearly seamless round-robin surveillance of the Soviet ports in the Barents. There were only a couple of British subs trained for the task, and they went near Soviet shores only during spring and fall, but those subs were dedicated to the spy mission, and that's what their commanders and crews specialized in. They were good at it, and they were aggressive. The British Royal Navy just didn't mind confronting the Soviets.
Submariners (which he pronounces without the accent on the ri as Yanks do) are often called members of the "Silent Service," referring to their secret, quiet, underwater stealth warfare. But in the case of Littlejohns and men like him, "silent" also means keeping mouths shut about the battles waged with the Soviets. "That book could not have been written in Great Britain," Littlejohns said of Blind Man's Bluff. The book is almost entirely about U.S. crews and commanders, and how accurate it truly is continues to be a matter of debate. But if Littlejohns could talk, he would at length describe the years spying on the Soviet Union, tracking Soviet subs, and getting involved in the clandestine type of antics that have helped make Clancy such a powerful big seller.
"I'm aggressive," Littlejohns explained. "When I was commanding a diesel submarine we were the best in the squadron. When I was in nuclear submarines, we won torpedo-firing championships. And in both submarines I was involved in quite special operations."
If only he could talk about them-and Clancy certainly keeps trying to get Littlejohns to break. He won't. "Tom says he'll take me out on a mountain somewhere and make me talk," Littlejohns said, breaking into his deep laugh. "But I have a stronger constitution than he has."
My good friend, Tom
To tell the Littlejohns story without describing his relationship with Clancy would be like taking heroic Jack Ryan out of Clancy's novels-good stories but a heck of a hole in character development.
When Clancy remarried last summer, he asked Littlejohns to serve as best man. Littlejohns was surprised and humbled by the request, but standing at Clancy's side symbolizes the depth and breadth of their relationship. He calls Clancy "Tom" and refers to him warmly as "my good friend."
The budding friendship that led to Clancy's choice of Littlejohns to run Red Storm dates back to 1984 and the height of the Cold War. Littlejohns had recently ended his tenure as captain of the Sceptre when Clancy's blockbuster first book, Hunt for Red October, hit the shelves. Like millions of others around the globe, Littlejohns was up all night reading the book, fascinated by the stunning insider's detail and plot put together by a then-insurance salesman who wanted to join the military but had been turned down because of poor eye sight.
Littlejohns was stunned, saying Clancy disclosed information "that if I had talked about would have put me in the Tower of London." He couldn't wait to meet "this chap" and got the chance over dinner with other officers and Clancy in Virginia. But the captain didn't just kiss Clancy's hand when they met; he was candid enough to point out some errors Clancy had made. And when Clancy offered up some ideas about his second book (Red Storm Rising, from which the company gets its name) Littlejohns offered up a "No!" to his request.
Clancy reacted well to the criticism, however, and soon asked Littlejohns for some advice. He later created "Doug Little" as a character in Red Storm and the two struck up a relationship which deepened over the years. While Clancy went on to write best-seller after best-seller, Littlejohns went back to sea and served out the Cold War in numerous posts. But the two always stayed in touch and became struggling golf partners.
"Tom and I are quick decision makers. We decided we liked each other, and we worked at staying in touch," Littlejohns explained. "It was a genuine friendship growth rather than a 'Right, see you every three years' sort of thing."
By 1995, after Littlejohns retired from the Royal Navy, Clancy was working with a friend in Raleigh (David Smith, founder of VIRTUS Corporation) to create a submarine warfare game for PCs called SSN. The acronym stands for nuclear attack submarine, and who better to help Clancy and Smith design the game than Littlejohns?
The game and an accompanying book by Clancy were smash hits in 1996. But before those hit the market, Clancy already was thinking about creating a game company of his own. Littlejohns, then a rapidly rising executive with a London-based company, was his choice to run it.
"Doug is a leader, not a manager," Clancy told Forbes ASAP in 1999. "He was my only real choice."
To Littlejohns, the decision to end his budding business career, steady salary, and stock options was hard enough. To move away from his two daughters and son and leave his homeland was not an easy choice for the Commodore.
"It took a long time," Littlejohns recalled. "I suggested to Tom that if he wanted to get serious about games he needed a separate games company. In January of '96, he rang me up, said he was taking my advice, was spinning off a games company and wanted me to run it. This was a bolt out of the blue. I didn't even play computer games."
Littlejohns spent months researching his next possible mission. "I had to make sure I wasn't burning all my bridges, I wanted to do my own research, and I also wanted to make sure we had a fighting chance of success. I didn't want to come home six months later with nothing but my cap in my hands. It was tough, and I made it deliberately tough."
Debs finally made the call. "The person who really clinched it was my wife, who said, 'I really don't want to live with you 20 years down the road and have to hear you muttering about 'I wish I had done it.' When I realized she was happy to pull up stakes and come over here-that clinched the deal."
His wife concurred. With a smile, she said, "I couldn't have lived with him."
Littlejohns wasn't a neophyte to business when he took the job, either. While in the Navy he attended the equivalent of the U.S. Naval Academy, earned degrees with honors in mathematics and computer science later at Reading University, and went on to an MBA with distinction at the prestigious Warwick University Business School. The man who at 29 became one of the youngest commanders of a British submarine also was among the first to get an MBA at his age and rank.
By 1994, with the Cold War over and the British Navy shrinking, Littlejohns chose to retire rather than fight for promotions and responsibilities. But he said he's never regretted the decision, saying what he does now is "the most exciting time" of a remarkable life.
Not that there haven't been bumps in the road. Littlejohns and Debs, his wife of 13 years, agree that the worst experience they have had in moving to the States was the immigration process. He is working under his second three-year work permit and has been in the queue to get a "Green Card" for more permanent work status for more than two years.
If that weren't aggravating enough, Debs is considered a "non-person, or baggage," as Littlejohns described it. "When we took in our papers to apply for Social Security cards and such, they took mine but tore hers up right in front of her. That wasn't a very warm welcome to America," Littlejohns said, the anger evident in his voice. "But she does have a tax number. This has been quite an experience for a woman who was quite self-sufficient as an artist before I met her in London."
Debs is an accomplished artist, taking commissions to paint pet portraits, such as a remarkable one of the Littlejohns' two big, beautiful black Labs, Wigeon and Tumbleweed. She also does engravings. But she is not working now, which she said is fine. "I'm too busy looking after the house and the dogs," she said with a chuckle. The Littlejohns live in a spacious home in Cary's Prestonwood, and if the weather permits, they often play golf together on Saturday and Sunday. Debs also is seeking a master's degree in homeopathy. "Homeopathy was used to treat me 28 years ago in South Africa, and whatever they did to me-it worked," she said.
The Littlejohns do travel back to England twice a year, where his three children still live. Andrew, 26, is a lawyer. Daughters Imogen, 21, and Diana, 20, are both in college.
Will the Littlejohns seek to become US citizens at some point? "We have to take things one step at a time," Littlejohns said. "I have to get the Green Card first."
Friend and Boss
On the business front, Littlejohns finds working for Clancy and in the U.S. business environment a pleasant change.
"I love the climate here," he explained. "I also love the business climate. This is the land of opportunity, you know, and you are encouraged to come up with hair-brained ideas. The arena I was in [in Great Britain]-the initial response was negative and you worked from there. Here, you work from the positive. I like that because I'm a free-wheeling sort."
After a host of business plan rewrites and strategy sessions, Red Storm was created in November of 1996 with VIRTUS as a partner. Despite some rough seas, one canceled game, Planet Texas, and a couple of games that haven't sold well, the company has flourished. Amazingly to some, the two men have managed to remain close friends even though Clancy, as chairman of the Red Storm board, is Littlejohns' boss.
"The mantra in business is do not go into business with a friend," Littlejohns said. "The challenge is to separate the business from the personal. There are times we do not see eye-to-eye, but we don't let that affect our friendship, and I think we've been very good at it."
His admiration for Clancy runs deep. "The thing I most admire is that he's a man of his word, a man of honor, and there are not many of those left. He doesn't say one thing and change his mind two seconds later. That's very refreshing. He stands by his friends. He's a good chap."
However, there is no question as to which man runs the company. "Tom is chairman of the board but it's my job to run the company," Littlejohns said. "I'm the CEO of the company. He put me there, so I make the calls unless he fires me."
Clancy currently is in what Littlejohns describes as "book mode." Clancy's next Jack Ryan book will be out later this year, and he is striving to finish it. Littlejohns can envision Clancy pounding away at his Macintosh, smoking a cigarette, then gazing off into space as he attempts to create the next scene in Ryan's life. Littlejohns paid his respects to Clancy with a little speech following the wedding. "Don't criticize him when he's looking out the window," he said of the writer. "He's working."
The chairman has withdrawn from a more active role in the company. But he and Pearson LLC (a European conglomerate) are the major shareholders in Red Storm. Littlejohns also is part owner as is VIRTUS, and a growing number of employees also have begun exercising options to buy stock.
The Evolution of Success
Red Storm has soared from $1 million in revenues and a handful of employees to $60 million and nearly 100 employees. Games such as Rainbow Six and its sequel, Rogue Spear, have been huge artistic as well as financial successes.
And part of the company's success has to be attributed to Littlejohns, who helped create the company's evolving five-year plan, made key hires, then set the tone for the place with a style akin to that of a submarine. No stiff shirts, white ties and levels of protocol, the lack of which were major reasons he chose to serve in submarines when his hopes of becoming a fighter pilot were quashed by the Royal Navy. The style is relaxed, employees are trusted to be well trained and to do their jobs, creativity is encouraged, and Littlejohns doesn't meddle.
"Working at Red Storm is different from my past experiences-management, including our CEO, fully supports making games and provides us with what we need to produce top-notch products," said Phil Deluca, a veteran of the gaming industry who is producer for UFS Vanguard, an upcoming Red Storm game featuring combat in space. "I'm grateful to have managers concerned with the products as much as the team members are."
Littlejohns, or "Commodore" as his staff calls him, divides the Red Storm forces into teams (artists, engineers, producers) for game creation. The Vanguard group is called "Churchill." Another group is rolling out Shadow Watch, which is tied in with a Clancy espionage paperback by the same name. And down another hall a group is working on a series of games based on best-selling author Anne McCaffrey's Freedom series. Also in production is a series of games based on the Roswell animated TV series.
Red Storm titles are making their way onto platforms other than PCs such as PlayStation, Nintendo and GameBoy.
The move beyond Clancy-based titles and PCs reflects Littlejohns' determination to diversify. "We're not the Tom Clancy game company," he said. Just like in a submarine control room, he also must constantly alter strategy and attack plans in the cutthroat business where Red Storm's financial success is the exception, not the rule. "We're a fashion business," he explained. "There isn't a lot of brand loyalty. Players are very choosy. We can't sit back and relish our success. We have to win every day."
To Red Storm's chief financial officer, Littlejohns' style works. "The challenge and employment at Red Storm is the speed of change and therefore the decision making, and the fact that the 'numbers' are rarely the sole answer," said Mike Oliver, who worked for the old Interactive Magic games company before coming to Red Storm. "You throw out the spreadsheets, the MBA's and make a lot of gut calls. This industry requires fast, decisive action and real-time coordination among your team."
Turnover rate at Red Storm also is remarkably low, about 4 percent, a fact attributed in part to Littlejohns' openness. The company has weekly "beer and chip" sessions and occasional outings. At those, people are encouraged to ask questions of all kinds. "Everyone knows where we stand," he said. "I'm very open with them."
The process of bringing a game to market is tedious, including focus groups and extensive market research. And a veteran games analyst, Mario Kroll of the www.wargamers.com web site, said Red Storm's attention to quality as well as consumer feedback has been crucial to its success.
"Overall, there has been a huge degree of separation from Politika (its first title in 1997) to Rainbow Six," Kroll said. "Right now, they are riding high. Rogue Spear is fantastic and has been received very well. Based on the preview we saw, we knew it would be fantastic. From what I'm hearing right now, the next mission pack for Rogue Spear looks to be very hot, and Vanguard looks pretty good.
"At Red Storm, everybody I talked to, from developers to artists and the marketing people-it's clear everyone there really likes what they are doing, and it shows up in the end product." Kroll also said Red Storm "actually listens to their audience, and you've got to do that. A lot of companies, frankly, don't."
In the games business, when a new product is finally ready for production and selling at stores it's called "going gold." To Littlejohns, that's as exciting an experience as playing cat-and-mouse 20,000 leagues under the sea.
"The most exciting thing to see is the strategic plan coming together and you realize all that you've been doing is justified," he said. "But you never know if a game is going to be successful. That's the unknown. You show the game to focus groups to get feedback-to buyers, to retailers. But you're not sure till people start to buy."
Red Storm faces fierce competition in the $9 billion games and entertainment marketplace, and the company is not nearly as large as some. Still, Littlejohns knows the company is making serious inroads.
"Yes, of course I have," he responds when asked if he has considered taking Red Storm public. "But I'm not going to rush blindly into an IPO (initial public offering) which seems to be the mantra of a lot of companies, because, quite frankly, the marketplace has not been kind to game companies the last two years. None went public in '99, and two did in '98 but hardly either could be considered a success. However, you never say never.
"We know we are on the radar screens of a number of different companies, and we've had some interesting discussions. We are profitable, we have money in the bank, and we are growing. The bigger we get, the more profitable we become, and the greater the options we will have for an IPO or a merger."
Whatever track Red Storm takes, Littlejohns will make sure his crew helps shape the course. Drawing on his submarine career, he explained: "Over 30 years, one thing I learned in the military is to think ahead and to have a Plan B and in some instances a Plan C in case something goes wrong. Then, when a problem arises it's not 'Oh my God, I didn't think of that!' It's OK, fine, let's switch to Plan B. I don't want to be in a position where you make a decision in 10 seconds because that would indicate a lack of foresight."
Littlejohns also is no Captain Queeg. "You can run a boat two ways, from the top down and tell everybody what they're doing, or you can do what I did and what my colleagues did: Keep people in the picture as fully as I could. Then when something happens, people won't be saying 'What's that silly bastard doing now?'"