Democracy Dies in Darkness

Obituaries

Arjay Miller, Ford president and Stanford business dean who called on companies to improve civic life, dies at 101

By Matt Schudel

November 10, 2017 at 4:29 PM

Arjay Miller at his 1979 retirement from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. He is being serenaded by a student band called the Arjays. (Dave Bockian/Stanford Graduate School of Business)

Arjay Miller, a onetime Ford Motor Co. "whiz kid" who, as the company's president and later as dean of Stanford's Graduate School of Business, called on business executives to assume larger roles of civic and social responsibility, died Nov. 3 at his home in Woodside, Calif. He was 101.

The cause was a stroke, said his son, Kenneth Miller.

In the 1940s, Mr. Miller was among an elite corps of military officers who trained in management and statistics at Harvard during World War II, worked in supply and procurement at the Pentagon and, after their discharge, offered their services en masse to Ford. The car company, a marquee American brand, was struggling and was projected to lose millions of dollars.

When the 10 young officers went for a group interview, Mr. Miller recalled to Stanford Business magazine in 2000, company Chairman Henry Ford II said, "Write your names down, tell me how much money you want and when you can come to work."

The young veterans, who included Robert S. McNamara, a future defense secretary and World Bank president, were first called the "quiz kids" because of their persistent questions about the company's activities.

Arjay Miller, left, with his former boss at Ford Motor Co., Henry Ford II. (Stanford Graduate School of Business Library Archive/Stanford Graduate School of Business Library Archive)

They reviewed Ford's business practices, from production to marketing to finance. They found chaotic record-keeping, unnecessary expenses and bank accounts that held millions of dollars without earning interest.

The new executives became known as the "whiz kids" as they rose in the company ranks and helped institute a new organizational structure, financial controls and management methods.

"It's in a failing or difficult situation where talent can express itself," Mr. Miller told Forbes magazine in 1984. "Stars are born in turnarounds and start-ups."

In the mid-1950s, McNamara and Mr. Miller helped spur Ford to offer new safety options in cars, including padded dashboards and seat belts, to prevent injuries and deaths from car accidents.

"That was a very powerful event in auto safety," consumer advocate Ralph Nader said last week in an interview. "They really wanted to have crash-worthiness in the '50s."

But the Ford executives discovered that their cars didn't sell as well as those of General Motors, which was slower to adopt safety measures. Automotive News ran a mocking headline that summed up the problem: "McNamara sells safety. Chevy sells cars."

McNamara served briefly as Ford's president in 1960 before moving to Washington as defense secretary. Mr. Miller was company president from 1963 to 1968.

During his tenure, Ford unveiled the Mustang, a moderately priced sports car that became one of the company's most successful models. Corporate earnings reached record levels.

At the same time, Nader's 1965 book, "Unsafe at Any Speed," was drawing attention to dangerous design flaws in cars. Mr. Miller promised to introduce new safety features in Ford vehicles.

The move was prompted in part by a close call on a Michigan highway. While driving home from work in his Lincoln Continental, Mr. Miller was struck from behind. His car spun around and burst into flames. He escaped unharmed.

During testimony before a congressional committee in 1965, Mr. Miller admitted the auto industry had been derelict in improving the safety of its cars.

"I still have burning in my mind the image of that gas tank on fire," he said, pledging that Ford would help in federal research efforts to make cars safer. Under his guidance, Ford was considered the most innovative U.S. automaker, even planning to develop an exhaust-free electric car to reduce air pollution.

"All corporate reform starts with words, not deeds, and he had the right words," Nader said Friday. "He elevated our expectations for corporate behavior and corporate responsibility."

During the 1960s, as unrest spread through Detroit and other cities, Mr. Miller said business leaders should adopt corporate values that reached beyond the bottom line. He was among the first executives to call for a government-supported guaranteed minimum income for low-income households.

"The most important ingredient in organizations and in management is your people," he said.

He believed companies should be judged by their contributions to civic life, not just by their profit statements.

After becoming dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1969, Mr. Miller sought to put such principles into action. Among other things, he established the school's public management program, which sought to interweave management practices with the larger concerns of government and society.

"Making money is the easy part," he said in 2000. "Making the world a better place is the hard part."

Arjay Ray Miller was born March 4, 1916, on a farm near Shelby, Neb. His first name was derived from the initials of his father's name, Rawley John.

He moved to California at 16 and graduated in 1937 from the University of California at Los Angeles. He did graduate work in economics at the University of California at Berkeley before working as an economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

During World War II, he found his way to the Army Air Forces' elite statistical school at Harvard, setting the tone for his later career.

His wife of 70 years, the former Frances Fearing, died in 2010. Survivors include two children, Kenneth Miller of Menlo Park, Calif., and Ann Olstad of Woodside; three granddaughters; and seven great-grandchildren.

Mr. Miller was a member of many corporate boards, including Ford's and The Washington Post's. He was instrumental in making Stanford's business school one of the country's best. He expanded its endowment, hired the first women on the school's faculty and dramatically increased the number of female and minority students.

By the time he retired in 1979, he was such a popular administrator that some students started a beer club called FOAM, for "Friends of Arjay Miller." Another group formed a rock band called the Arjays. He remained a part of Stanford graduation ceremonies and other activities until this year.

Mr. Miller often spoke about the ethical standards of business leaders and said a reliable test for corporate executives was whether they would like to see their decisions reported on the television news programs.

"Don't worry about making a mistake," he said, as a reminder to future executives. "You can always be used as a bad example."

Read more Washington Post obituaries

Creighton J. Hale, Little League chief and developer of batting helmet, dies at 93

Daniel Yankelovich, pollster whose findings drove corporate, government policy, dies at 92

Jack Trout, marketing expert who sought an edge through 'positioning,' dies at 82


Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.

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