June 09, 2005

Today in Automotive History

1916 Whiz Kid

Robert Strange McNamara was born in San Francisco, California, on this date in 1916. McNamara received a degree in economics from the University of California at Berkeley, and then later an MBA from Harvard Business School.
At the age of 24, following a brief stint at the accounting firm of Price, Waterhouse, McNamara returned to Harvard to become an accounting instructor at Harvard Business School.

With the outbreak of World War II, he attempted to enlist in the Army but was rejected because of his poor eyesight. The fortuitous rejection prompted him to volunteer as an instructor for a Harvard program designed to teach Army Air Corps officers the principles of systematic management, especially in regard to the allocation of personnel, materiel, and money.

McNamara's excellence in this field eventually earned him a commission as a Captain in the Army Air Corps. He was one of the first members of a special unit called the Office of Statistical Control, led by Colonel Charles Thornton.

The OSC was charged with assembling and analyzing data to provide logistical support for American bombers. After the war, Thornton marketed his team's management skills to private companies. Enter Ford Motor Corporation.

Reigning atop a messy, outdated family company registering heavy losses, Henry Ford II was smart enough to recognize that the system he had inherited form his grandfather was in need of an overhaul. He hired Thornton's group, en masse, to begin work in February 1946. The members of the group ranged in age from twenty-six to thirty-four, signalling a major change in Ford's until-then stodgy hierarchy. The group was labeled the "Whiz Kids."

They instituted a modern economic approach to Ford's business administration, implementing organizational changes to make the planning and production processes more systematic. Six of the Whiz Kids eventually became vice-presidents and two, Arjay Miller and McNamara, rose to the position of company president.

Thornton left Ford soon after he started, and McNamara became the de facto leader of the Whiz Kids. He instituted the systematic sampling of public opinion, "market research"; he hired Lee Iaccoca; and he conceived the Ford Falcon, Ford's most successful car until the release of the Mustang in 1964.

A registered Republican, McNamara was offered a cabinet position by John F. Kennedy after the 1960 presidential election. Given the choice of becoming secretary of defense or secretary of the treasury, McNamara chose the Defense Department. McNamara remained secretary of defense until 1968, when his changing attitude toward the war in Vietnam led him to resign.

Posted by Quality Weenie at June 9, 2005 08:02 AM