From a Kitchen Table He Helped Revolutionize the Auto Industry — Quality Guru Dave Power Dead at 89
Revolutions often have humble origins. In the case of James David Power III, it began more than half a century ago at his kitchen table, where the former Ford financial analyst was pondering consumer surveys with his late wife Julie. In a moment of understanding, Power realized that the rotary engines Mazda was using at the time were failing disastrously and in great numbers.
It was one of many revelations that got power out of the data. Perhaps most importantly, Detroit automakers were paying far too little attention to quality issues that would soon be an important opening for emerging Japanese brands like Toyota, Nissan, and Honda. This became the foundation for a new research and consulting firm that would quickly become one of the most powerful voices in the industry, JD Power and Associates.
Dave Power, who would have run the family business for nearly four decades, passed away on Saturday at his home in Westlake Village, California, aged 89.
(For the first time, Genesis leads the Power Dependability Study as Nissan Leaf hits a coup.)
“I firmly believe that he has done more to improve quality and customer service in the auto industry than anyone in history,” said Dave Sargent, director of automotive research for what is now simply known as JD Power. “Everyone who owns a vehicle has benefited from their genius,” added Sargent in a Facebook post marking the death of the company’s founder.
Today the Power name is widely recognized in a wide variety of industries. The California-based company measures quality and customer satisfaction in areas as diverse as healthcare and telecommunications. She even counted the space agency NASA among her customers. However, it is best known for its work in the automotive industry.
Car buyers and automakers closely follow the results of annual reports such as the First Quality Survey and Customer Satisfaction Index, which track “issues” and measure how well consumers are being served. Automakers are also investing heavily in in-house studies, looking for problems and hoping to find new opportunities.
But Dave Power was just another cog in the company in the beginning. He initially worked as a financial analyst at Ford and later led marketing research for General Motors. He decided to go into business for himself, founded JD Power and Associates in 1968 and mortgaged the family home to raise capital.
“I was disaffected with research in the auto industry,” Power told me in a 1999 interview. “I found that engineers felt they knew more about how cars were built than anyone else, and not really wanted to listen to consumers. As a result, the market research got twisted enough to reflect what they wanted to hear. They would torture the data until it was confessed. “
Power discovered a number of things in those early years, particularly how customers became increasingly disillusioned with both the quality of the vehicles they bought in Detroit and the poor service they received when they ran into problems.
This offered a potential opening to Japanese manufacturers like Toyota, the new company’s first customer. Toyota itself had failed when it hit the US market in the 1950s with catastrophically poor products like the Toyopet. It needed a way to reach American consumers when it tried again to try, and great quality delivery would become key, as would the great mileage its products offered after the two 1970s oil shocks .
(Porsche, Dodge named most of the “APEAL” brands in the new JD Power study.)
However, not all Japanese brands met high quality standards. Mazda relied on the new Wankel rotary as an alternative to the tried and tested piston engine. As Julie Power sat at the kitchen table, she found that a significant proportion of these engines were failing, often after less than 40,000 miles. The research ended in a Wall Street Journal story and helped JD Power and Associates start out of the dark.
In the next few years, the company’s founder would start the first of his syndicated studies, offering a clinically efficient means of comparing the performance of the manufacturers.
Not everyone was pleased when the heat was coming up, and as Crain’s Detroit Business highlighted in a retrospective, Dave Power was booed and molested during an industry conference in 1980. But even if the industry didn’t always like what it heard, “It created a measurable standard,” said Bob Lutz, former president of Chrysler Corp. and later General Motors “Autozar” in a 1996 interview with Business Week. “He deserves our greatest respect for that.”
Dave Power wasn’t shy about predicting the future of the auto industry. “Not all of his ideas were successful, but most of them were successful,” said Sargent, who started the company in 1992.
As much as automakers had to change to meet customer expectations, Power saw a big need for change in retail. “The battlefield will shift to the dealership and the way a company interacts with the customer.”
he told me in our 1999 interview. And today retailers all the way to Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz and Lincoln are making great efforts to reshape their sales and service practices.
Dave Power sold his company to McGraw Hill in 2005. He remained a consultant for a couple of years before he retired – though until a few years ago he was a familiar sight at industry events like the Los Angeles Auto Show.
For its part, JD Power was sold again in July 2019 to the public company Thoma Bravo, which also operates Autodata Solutions.
Dave Power was born in Worcester, Massachusetts on May 30, 1931, and has received numerous awards over nearly nine decades, including the Lone Sailor Award, given to Navy veterans who later made significant careers. Power spent four years in the Coast Guard before joining the auto industry.
(In a breathtaking turnaround, Dodge shoots to # 1 in the JD Power Initial Quality Study in 2020.)
And in 2014, more than 30 years after being booed at that industry conference, Power was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame along with industry giants such as Henry Ford, Soichiro Honda and Walter P. Chrysler. He was honored for his “legendary path as the spirit behind the analytical approach to customer satisfaction – which is the industry standard today”.
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