Ralph Heath, executive vice president for the Lockheed Martin Corporation and president of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company, had high praise for both Rhyant and Cooper.
"My presence here frankly is just one small way for me to make a statement on behalf of the 140,000 employees of Lockheed Martin how much we appreciate and value all that you've done for our business," Heath told Rhyant. "He has stood for everything we hold up in terms of our core values as a company of Lockheed Martin. His leadership, his business acumen and frankly his credibility that he established with our customers at all levels and his leadership of our workforce."
Heath touched on the challenges Rhyant had seen in his 11-year tenure as chief of the Marietta plant, such as government cutbacks of the F-22 fighter jet program. But ultimately, Heath is optimistic about Lockheed's future.
"If you really look to where we are today, we've got a very bright future certainly across Lockheed Martin and for sure here in Marietta," Heath said. "This is the crown jewel of our business, bar none. I can tell you the Marietta facility, and I've been in the business 35 years, this is as good as it gets. This is the example that I hold as the standard benchmark for the rest of our business."
Of key importance is that such excellence did not happen by accident, he said.
"It's all about leadership and leadership in the right form, and Lee, you've heard me say this more than once, you are the epitome of what we hold up as the example of strong leadership, but one that values employees. We have great products and phenomenal technologies, but in the end, it's our people that are our competitive advantage, and Lee is the leader that they follow, and Lee is the reason that we have a very high spirited workforce here, and frankly why I'm so bullish in terms of long term success of our company and certainly Marietta."
Heath said he was confident that Rhyant is passing the torch to the right person, Shan Cooper.
"She is tough as nails, but she is also cut from the same cloth as Lee in terms of knowing how to lead in the right way," Heath said. "She's a perfect fit and she will take us to the next level. My confidence is extremely high in Shan. I've known her for quite a number of years and there's no question that she's the right person to move us onward."
Rhyant said his last day as executive vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co. in Marietta is May 1. He is in the process of transitioning out as Cooper transitions in, having started in her position on Jan. 3.
Rhyant said he will miss the employees of Lockheed.
"The people. The work ethic. The patriotism. I will miss every aspect of Lockheed Martin. The people, the government, the co partners of the government, the hard work, just the feel of patriotism, being part of the United State defense system, I am going to miss all of it," he said.
Born in the South Georgia town of Sasser to a sharecropper, Rhyant, 60, and his wife, Evelyn, have two sons, three grandchildren, and live in Marietta.
"I'm going to go off and spend three to six months and maybe do some traveling but mostly getting myself organized, doing memoirs, and then probably look at something and remerge, reinvent myself and try something different," Rhyant said of his future plans. "I want to go fishing. What I really want to do is go out and fish," he said.
Cobb Chamber of Commerce Chairman Rob Garcia said he didn't know of a better corporate citizen and company in the community that has meant more to job creation and economic impact than Lockheed. As for Rhyant, Garcia, said "When you think of Lee you think of somebody who truly has a love of humanity, and I mean specifically the least of these. And I don't know of anyone who has been more loving and compassionate to people in need. Someone who has shown and demonstrated an absolute care for those who are hurting. For many years we have watched Lee comfort people with a kind word. We've seen him touch people with a beautiful prayer, and we've heard him sing those beautiful songs that clearly illustrate a ministry and an essence of a true spirit, and there is no doubt that all of that is rooted for his love for his Lord."
Cooper acknowledged being a little anxious in filling the shoes of someone so respected in the community.
"You know what? I'm a little anxious, but it's more important to me that I make him proud," she said. "He's been a mentor and a really good friend throughout my career at Lockheed Martin since we've known each other, and I want to ensure that I continue the great legacy that he started."
Cooper comes to the job after serving as vice president of Human Resources for another division of Lockheed Martin called Information Systems and Global Solutions in Gaithersburg, Md. In her new role she is responsible for over 8,400 people. That includes the employees of the Marietta plant, which are about 8,100, as well as staff at two assembly sites located in West Virginia and Mississippi.
A native of Anniston, Ala., Cooper, 43, and husband, Eddie, are the parents of a daughter who is a graduate of the Florida State University School of Law.
Among the 150 or so in attendance Tuesday were Cobb Sheriff Neil Warren, Major General William T. Nesbitt, The Adjutant General of Georgia; former Lockheed presidents Bob Ormsby, Bill Bullock and Ken Cannestra; Cobb Board of Commissioners Chairman Tim Lee and Commissioner JoAnn Birrell; Kennesaw State President Dr. Dan Papp, Chattahoochee Technical College President Dr. Sanford Chandler; County Manager David Hankerson, state Reps. Stacey Evans (D-Smyrna) and Ed Setzler (R-Acworth); the Rev. Joseph Lowery; the Rev. Harris Travis of Zion Baptist Church; Jim Rhoden, president of Futren Corporation; Tracey Atwater, president of The WellStar Foundation; Don Barbour, an AT&T Georgia executive; Pedro Cherry, a Georgia Power regional manager; Don Johnson, owner of a State Farm Insurance agency; Sam Kelly, spokesman for Cobb EMC; MDJ General Manager Otis Brumby III; and banker Joe Daniell.