Arjay Miller Pushed Stanford MBA Students to Help Save the World

By James R. Hagerty Features Dow Jones Newswires

As president of Ford Motor Co. in the 1960s, Arjay Miller concluded that business leaders could no longer consider pollution, urban riots and other social issues as someone else's problem. He took that agenda to Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, where he served as dean in the 1970s. He put an emphasis on teaching corporate social responsibility and skills applicable to both business and public policy.

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Raised on a Nebraska farm with no indoor plumbing, Mr. Miller was an economist and one of the 10 "whiz kids" hired as executives by Ford in 1946 after serving together in a statistical branch of the Army Air Forces.

A director of companies including Wells Fargo & Co., Levi Strauss & Co. and Washington Post Co., he was exceptionally well-connected. Henry Ford II in 1986 stipulated that, if he was ever kidnapped, Mr. Miller should be in charge of negotiating with his captors. Warren Buffett played his ukulele at Mr. Miller's 100th birthday party.

Mr. Miller died Nov. 3 in Woodside, Calif. He was 101.

Ralph Nader's crusade for safer cars and the Detroit riots of 1967 jolted Mr. Miller into rethinking his approach to business. He saw Mr. Nader's indictment of flimsy automobiles as a justified slap in the industry's face. Auto executives, summoned to Congress to testify about deathtrap cars, were unprepared, he believed, and that led to regulations shaped by government officials with little understanding of the industry.

The riots galvanized business leaders in Detroit, where Mr. Miller became chairman of an economic development committee. "Our primary task was to get jobs for the unemployed in the city," he said in an oral history recorded at Stanford in 2003. "We failed miserably."

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At Stanford, he created a public management program aimed at encouraging more students to consider working in government or at nonprofits. Another aim was to teach business students to deal effectively with public officials.

Rawley John Miller Jr., the youngest of eight siblings, was born March 4, 1916, in Shelby, Neb. A sister dubbed him Arjay. Harvesting corn, milking cows and other chores inspired him to seek an easier way of life. Teaching struck him as his best bet.

While he was studying at the University of California, Los Angeles, a young woman named Frances Fearing gave him a B on a test in labor economics. When he complained, she refused to change his grade but "agreed to go out with me. So we got married," he recalled in a 2008 interview.

After graduating from UCLA in 1937, he entered a doctoral program in economics at the University of California, Berkeley. Before he could finish a dissertation, he was assigned to work with other scholars in the Pentagon, compiling data to help ensure weapons and parts were available where most needed.

He and nine others from that military brain trust -- including Robert McNamara, later U.S. Secretary of Defense -- wanted to stay together after the war. "We thought we could sell ourselves as a package as management experts to industry," Mr. Miller said. Henry Ford II "looked at us and said, 'I want to hire all 10 of you. Just put down your names, how much money you want, and when you can come to work.'"

Mr. Miller helped straighten out Ford's chaotic financial reporting in the late 1940s and spent 23 years at Ford, including five as president. He had two secretaries, two chauffeurs and access to a fleet of corporate aircraft. Still, his power was limited. "Henry was the boss," Mr. Miller once said, according to "The Whiz Kids," a 1993 book by John A. Byrne. "Even though he said, 'You're the boss, Arjay, you make the decision,' Henry didn't mean it."

In 1968, Mr. Ford abruptly replaced him with Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen, poached from General Motors Corp. Mr. Miller was kicked upstairs as a vice chairman. He later said he had "had a fill" of corporate life and welcomed Stanford's offer.

As a dean, he tapped his many business pals for donations to Stanford. "I was on the board of Utah International (a mining company), and I got five endowed chairs out of that board," he told Stanford interviewers.

His wit was quick. A colleague who needed 10 stitches on his forehead after a household mishap joked that doctors had removed his brain. "Why did they need such a big hole?" Mr. Miller shot back.

He urged business leaders to apply "the TV test: Don't ever do anything you wouldn't be willing to explain on TV (to) a national audience or see in the newspapers."

Mr. Miller is survived by two children, three granddaughters and six great grandchildren. His wife of 70 years, Frances, died in 2010.

Global warming was "the biggest disaster coming down the pike at us," Mr. Miller warned in 2008. Even so, he said, "you have to be an optimist in this world. There's reason not to be, but never give up."

--Nicole Friedman contributed to this article.

Write to James R. Hagerty at bob.hagerty@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 10, 2017 10:44 ET (15:44 GMT)