By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON Aug 20 (Reuters) - Linda Hudson, chief executive officer of the U.S. unit of Britain's BAE Systems Plc, will retire early next year, the weapons maker said on Tuesday.
The company said it would start a search for a successor. Hudson, 62, joined BAE in 2007 and took over as CEO of the U.S. unit in 2009.
That promotion made Hudson the first woman to head a major U.S. defense operation and placed her in a small club of female CEOs heading what amounts to a Fortune 500 company.
Hudson will stay in her post through the first quarter of 2014 and will remain on the U.S. company's board through April 2015, BAE said. She will step down from the BAE Systems Plc board and the parent group's executive committee at the end of March 2014.
Hudson, who has worked in the defense industry for 40 years, held senior positions at General Dynamics Corp, another major weapons manufacturer, before joining BAE in 2007.
RBC Securities analyst Rob Stallard said Hudson won high marks for managing BAE during a time of huge growth and for aggressively attacking costs after war demand peaked.
"We ... don't expect this to be a major catalyst for the shares, assuming successful continuity," he said in a note to investors.
BAE stock was up 0.6 percent in London.
Ian King, CEO of BAE Systems Plc, credited Hudson for streamlining the U.S. unit, which accounts for about 40 percent of the company's total revenues, and diversifying its portfolio.
Hudson told employees in a statement that she had mixed emotions about leaving the company, but still had many goals left to achieve.
"I have many more things I want to do professionally and philanthropically; many places I want to go; and family and friends I'd like to see more often," Hudson said.
She said she felt confident that the company was well-positioned for success at "a time when the dysfunction in Washington has created a cloudy and uncertain environment."
Charles Stanley analyst Tina Cook said Hudson was highly regarded for her management of the company and her breadth of experience.
Michael Chertoff, chairman of the board of the U.S. unit, said in a statement that Hudson had guided the company through both wartime growth and preparation for defense spending cuts, "clearly establishing it as a major and leading defense company in the United States."