Robert W. Galvin, retired CEO of Motorola, dies at 89

Robert W. Galvin, 89, the retired chairman and chief executive of Motorola who guided his family’s business into a new technological frontier and put palm-sized telephones into pockets and purses everywhere, died Oct. 11 in Chicago.

No cause of death was reported. The death was confirmed by a family spokesman, James David.

Before Mr. Galvin took over in 1959, Motorola was already known as a pioneer in the communications field. But it was under his 30-year stewardship that the company would make history.

Founded by his father, Paul Galvin, and uncle, Joseph Galvin, the company introduced in 1930 the first commercial car radio, which they called the Motorola.

During World War II, the Galvins’ Chicago-based company supplied the U.S. military with the hand-held two-way radio known to hundreds of thousands of troops as the walkie-talkie.

Mr. Galvin became chief executive in 1959, when his father died. Determined to expand Motorola’s interests, Mr. Galvin tapped new markets in Japan and China. He invested deeply in new technology, including semiconductors and transistors.

Under Mr. Galvin’s leadership, Motorola became a leading manufacturer of chips and circuits that powered car ignitions, tape recorders, variable speed drills and kitchen stove controls.

Mr. Galvin also ensured Motorola’s dominance in the communications field by providing NASA with radio equipment. On July 20, 1969, the grainy images and muffled sounds of Neil Armstrong planting the first step on the moon were beamed back to earth using Motorola technology.

NASA has since flown Motorola equipment to Mars, and the majority of all police cruisers, fire trucks and taxi cabs in the United States use Motorola two-way radios.

Beginning in the 1970s, Motorola developed the first cellular phone, the DynaTac. Although brick-like by 2011 standards, the DynaTac helped make Motorola one of the world’s top cellphone makers. In the 1990s, Motorola controlled 22 percent of the U.S. cellphone market. The Motorola Droid smartphones are some of the best-selling devices available today.

In the 1950s, before Mr. Galvin became chief executive, Motorola had 6,000 employees and sales of $250 million. When he retired as chairman in 1990, the company employed more than 100,000 people and had worldwide sales of $10.8 billion.

Robert William Galvin was born Oct. 9, 1922, in Marshfield, Wisconsin. He joined the family business in 1940 after high school as a stockroom worker.

“The principal fault my father saw in me as a very young man was a lack of discontent,” Mr. Galvin told Forbes in 1963. “He did everything to make me dissatisfied.”

Mr. Galvin proved his abilities and received steady promotions, and his career was accelerated after the death of his uncle in 1944. His father made him executive vice president in 1949, and Mr. Galvin became the company’s president seven years later.

Despite his many successes, Mr. Galvin shared Motorola’s flops, too. In the 1950s, he helped Motorola debut some of of the first color television sets. But the devices were far too expensive for their time and didn’t sell well. After years of losses, Motorola sold its television division to a Japanese company in 1974.

In the late 1950s, Motorola acquired the Miracle Ear hearing aid company owned by Kenneth H. Dahlberg, who died earlier this month. The venture failed, and Motorola sold the company back to Dahlberg in 1964.

One of Motorola’s most popular products in the 1970s and 1980s was the pager. The belt-loop clippable devices — found on the hips of physicians, executives, and even escorts — were made obsolete by Motorola’s succeeding invention, the cellphone.

Mr. Galvin served on the Motorola board until 2001.

His survivors include his wife of 67 years, Mary Barnes Galvin; four children; 13 grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.

In the 1980s, Mr. Galvin became frustrated with the high number of customer complaints about the quality of Motorola products.

He decided to revitalize the company’s standards with a plan he called Six Sigma. By maximizing factory efficiency and overhauling the employee training regimen, Motorola reduced defects in products and services to three per million — a perfection rate of 99.9997 percent.

Mr. Galvin’s Six Sigma strategy became a manufacturing benchmark that was adopted by companies such as IBM, Boeing, Caterpillar and Raytheon.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.