Published October 11, 2013
He’s become the most trusted name in customer satisfaction, but odds are, you didn’t even know his company's name belonged to a man.
Known for his influential marketing tools and customer surveys, James David “Dave” Power III, founder of J.D. Power and Associates, came from humble roots, and managed, through determination and belief in his product, to carve out a niche to make customers the center of business.
Putting Consumers at the Top
A child of the Great Depression, Power was brought up with work as a central focus. Through his high school years, he spent time shoveling snow, mowing yards, working at restaurants, and selling newspapers. A blessing or a curse, he learned the value of a dollar early on in his life.
“It was a tough time,” he said. “Peddling newspapers…one cost four cents a copy, and we got to keep one cent out of the four... Some people would give us exact change: Two dimes and a penny. Others would give us a quarter. And I learned sometimes they would put their hand out to get change back, others would give us a tip. And I’ve learned a lot of lessons that way in how to deal with people.”
It was the harsh work of his early years – when work was long and tough, and money tight – that allowed Power to believe he could help create the change he wanted to see in the world.
Sitting at his kitchen table in 1968, Power was fed up that brands didn’t take customer feedback to heart. Rather than lamenting about it from the comfort of his home, he resolved to do something to change the way businesses think about their products and their impact to the American consumer. And with his industry experience, he felt he was just the man to lead the charge.
“I worked in the automobile industry, working with Ford Motor Company and General Motors and I found the research they were doing was massaged by the time it got to top executives. And I wanted to do something on an independent basis,” Power said.
But changing a mindset is a difficult task to accomplish, as Power discovered. For a while, many top executives didn’t want to meet with him and didn’t consider his research and data to be accurate or meaningful. One of his early surveys in the 1970s discovered owners of cars with Mazda’s rotary-engines were having problems with their vehicles and became dissatisfied. Though Mazda wasn’t pleased with the findings and denied them, it later worked on fixes – a move that gave Power and his new company a whole new level of credibility.
“And it has turned out to be a very positive thing for us to have the independence and integrity that eventually we won out with all other car companies who took our data and use it to help them concentrate on the things the customer was really talking about,” Power said.
Through the struggle to prove his data were real and the determination to make it matter, Power quickly became someone not many executives and companies believed in, to someone every major companies in America wanted to know and respect. In a sign of just how far he’s come, six weeks into Ford (F) CEO Alan Mallaly’s tenure, the chief executive called Power for an in-office meeting to ask for advice.
“It was something that I really appreciated and was happy about,” Power said. “All of the companies took hold and started using the data in a fashion that changed the industry. Today, every make and model of vehicle out there in the U.S. marked is actually improved several hundred percent better than it was when we started back in ’68.”
For his life’s work to improve customer satisfaction in a host of industries, in 1992, Power received the Automotive Hall of Fame’s Distinguished Service Citation, which is awarded to seven of the most accomplished leaders in the industry annually.
Leaving Behind a Powerful Legacy
At 82-years old, Power still believes in the company as much as he did when he first launched it with his wife Julie nearly 45 years ago. In 2005, he sold his company to McGraw-Hill but stayed with the company in 2009 when he fully retired.
But he couldn’t stay away from the industry completely. Power remains active on several boards of directors and on his family’s philanthropic efforts including education, entrepreneurship and medical research. He’s also frequently asked to share his story at speaking engagements.
To those who have big dreams and goals to change the way people think and interact with each other, Power offers words of advice.
“If you have an idea of how things should be done, and you see they’re not being done that way. You dig in, and it takes time,” he said. “But if you really have the answers that are necessary, you’ll become successful. And it might take longer than you think. It took us 25 to 30 years.”
Power said through the years, from launch, to the time of his retirement, there were bumps in the road and hard lessons he had to learn. But there was one guiding principle that kept him grounded, and in life after J.D. Power and Associates, keeps him humble.
“You have to have your own integrity in order to report the facts, because, a lot of times, they’re unpleasant to the manufacturers or your clients,” he said.