Obituaries

Arjay Miller, 101; former Harvard student led a resurgence at Ford

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

Arjay Miller, who as Ford Motor Co. president modernized the company’s management and marketed the original Mustangs, and who then switched to academia and elevated Stanford to the top ranks of America’s graduate business schools, died Nov. 3 at his home in Woodside, Calif. He was 101.

Raised as a Nebraska farm boy, Mr. Miller was one of the so-called whiz kids who persuaded Ford to hire them in the late 1940s from Harvard, where they had perfected statistical management techniques for the Army Air Forces.

Originally called the “quiz kids” because they peppered their Ford colleagues with probing questions, the team included Robert S. McNamara, who would also become a Ford president and later secretary of defense in the administrations of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

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During Mr. Miller’s presidency, Ford reported record sales and earnings, introduced the Mustang and other slick-back models, and revolutionized its stodgy management and financial practices.

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When Congress demanded that Detroit do more to prevent accidents, Ford responded proactively by acknowledging that the industry had been slow to embrace auto safety, and pledging to support whatever federal researchers recommended.

As the dean of the Graduate School of Business at Stanford, in Palo Alto, Calif., for a decade, Mr. Miller expanded the curriculum to include public policy, social issues and ethics; hired the first women onto the faculty; recruited more minority students; increased the endowment; and upgraded the school into a worthy challenger to the business schools of Harvard and the University of Chicago.

Mr. Miller was no ivory-tower dreamer or Detroit desk jockey, though.

After riots devastated the slums of Detroit and other cities in the summer of 1967, he was named by Johnson to a board that helped found the Urban Institute to address the underlying causes of the unrest. He also founded the Economic Development Corp. of Greater Detroit to support black-owned and black-operated businesses.

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Mr. Miller was the first major business executive to advocate a negative income tax to alleviate poverty — that is, giving a family with no income a basic grant and reducing but not eliminating it as the family gained income from other sources.

His political philosophy combined social conscience with self-interest.

“All we need to stay in business and grow,” he once said, “is to have more people and higher incomes.”

He was credited with having an encyclopedic arsenal of facts and figures and an insatiable curiosity, which he had evidenced since childhood, when he completely dismantled a vintage Model T that he bought for $10 to understand how it worked.

“The rescue of Ford from a morass of internecine chicanery and chaos cannot be laid at a single person’s feet,” Hemmings Classic Car magazine said in 2007, “but Miller unquestionably did a great deal of the heavy lifting to save the company.

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“Unlike most heroes of the car business, he was not an engineer, stylist or designated product planner,” the magazine continued. “Miller was, instead, a person who could reconcile the realities of interpreting reams of data and inspiring others to apply it logically. His talent allowed him, in turn, to manage an unprecedented war, to help remake a troubled manufacturing giant, and to realize his ultimate legacy by grooming a new generation of top executives.”

Arjay Ray Miller was born on March 4, 1916, in Shelby, Neb., a village west of Omaha. The youngest of eight children, he was named for the first initials of his father, Rawley John Miller, a farmer. His mother was the former Mary Schade.

“I always thought it was some help coming from a rural situation,” Miller told The New York Times in 1966. “You aren’t so perplexed about the world: Milk came from a cow, not from the grocery store. Eggs came from a chicken.”

After the family moved west, he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in finance and banking from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1937. As a teaching fellow and graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, he completed all the requirements for a doctorate except for his dissertation, then worked as an economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

Once the United States entered World War II, he tried to enlist in the military but was initially rejected because of poor eyesight. He was later drafted into the Army Air Forces, where he taught prospective pilots on a flight simulator and then was enrolled in a statistical regime for officers at Harvard.

When the war ended and he was discharged as a captain, Mr. Miller and the other nine members of his Harvard statistics group pitched themselves as a package deal to 100 companies. Only one, the Alleghany Corp., responded.

Before they could be interviewed there, Mr. Miller saw a cover article in Life magazine about Henry Ford II’s search for executive talent to revive the company, which had been losing money for 15 consecutive years, and retool it to a civilian economy.

After they sent a telegram to Ford requesting a meeting about “a matter of management importance,” the company hired all 10.

Mr. Miller started in the finance department’s analysis unit. Focusing on marketing and engineering, he was promoted to a vice presidency in 1957 and was named Ford’s seventh president in 1963.

“We’re lucky in the auto business,” he told The Boston Globe in 1966. “So many businesses have to work hard to create a demand. But for us, the minute a kid hits 16 he automatically wants a car.”

Yet he resented the notion that he was just an astute bean counter.

“We weren’t a bunch of accountants,” he told Automotive News in 2003. “We knew the importance of people.”