Cummins Says Farewell to a Legend

by Ingrid Phaneuf

COLUMBUS, Indiana – Cummins leader Irwin J. Miller passed away Aug. 16 at 95, but his legend lives on, at least on the office wall of Guff Muench, president of Cummins Western Canada.

Muench worked with Miller, who was one of the longest serving board members in Fortune 500 company history (1934 – 1997) and honourary chairman after that, and keeps a framed quote of Miller’s hanging near his desk.

“He had a great ability to make you feel important in your role,” said Muench.

The quote comes from a speech made by Miller to Cummins principal distributors meeting in Columbus, Ind. in 1996.

“If we are together determined to be the first ones to arrive at a new and remarkable level of service and a new level of care and concern for each of our customers, in every detail of our work together, this care and service on your part, combined with mechanical excellence and lower costs on our part will put us in the strongest competitive position this company has ever enjoyed.

“Our future can be very bright indeed if you and I, factory and distributor, are determined to make it so.”

The quote is just one of many remembered by Muench, who worked directly with Miller at the company’s Columbus, Ind. headquarters prior to taking up his current post.

“‘Facts are friendly,’ he used to say,” recalled Muench. “In other words, even if the news is bad, you can deal with it if you have the facts. What struck me the very first time I met him was how he was such a calm and methodical speaker. Also his incisive questions – if I had a meeting with him to ask his opinion on something, he always grilled me, about the industry, about the technology and about the people.

“I think he already knew all the answers but he was just tremendously curious.

“Mr. Miller was a person who could have a very clear vision of a future goal, and the ability to do today what was necessary to accomplish it. You can just see it in the vision he had for the company – his vision was that the diesel engine would one day become the dominant power source and he would end up developing the world’s largest independent engine manufacturer.”

Indeed, Miller’s association with Cummins went a long way back.

With degrees from Yale and Oxford, Miller became Cummins’ second general manager in 1934. (He led the company as chairman and CEO until his retirement in 1977.)

He had spent his formative years in the workshop of Clessie Cummins, the diesel engine promoter who founded Cummins Engine Company in 1919 and who was also the family chauffeur.

The family had invested heavily in the Cummins engine, with W. G. Miller, Irwin Miller’s uncle, a principle and a board member.

In 1942, Miller saw active service in the Marshall Islands, Truk and New Guinea as a lieutenant in the Naval Air Corps aboard the carrier Langley, but was recalled to serve as executive vice-president of Cummins Engine, as the company was busily building engines for wartime cargo trucks.

In 1943, Miller married Xenia R. Simons, a Columbus resident and Cummins employee. The two became parents of five children: Margaret, Catherine, Elizabeth, Hugh Thomas II and William Irwin.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Miller set forth the company’s primary strategy. He was named President in 1945 and Chairman of the board in 1951. Under his direction, the company set a high priority on research that would come up with new diesel technology, even if it meant rendering the company’s own products obsolete. Second, Cummins worked to reduce costs, while maintaining high product standards. Third, the company created a national network of independent distributors through which it could develop and maintain a close relationship with customers. The company saw sales increase from $20 million in 1946 to more than $100 million within a decade. In 1956, Cummins launched its first overseas plant in Scotland. In the 1950s and 1960s, two presidents ran the company within the broad guidelines established by Miller, and by 1967 Cummins had cornered 50 per cent of the diesel engine market. And as if quintupling the profits of a company in 10 years wasn’t enough, Miller was a prominent philanthropist.

Miller realized that for Columbus to prosper it needed to offer an enhanced quality of life and cultural advantages. To that end, he directed the Cummins Engine Foundation (which he founded in 1957) to start paying the fees of promising young architects who were commissioned by Columbus to design public buildings, including schools.

Six of the buildings that resulted from this effort are now National Historic Landmarks.

Sixty other buildings help sustain the Bartholomew County capital seat’s reputation as a showcase of modern architecture.

During his lifetime, Miller received numerous awards, appointments to influential national boards and acclaim for the corporation’s good deeds.

Miller served as Honourary Chairman of Cummins Engine Company, and Director of Irwin Financial Corporation and Irwin Management Company Inc. He also served on numerous other boards and committees including those of the Ford Foundation, the World Council of Churches, American Telephone and Telegraph, The Equitable Life Assurance Society, Chemical State Bank, New York City and the Yale Corporation.

In addition, he served as an emeritus trustee of the Museum of Modern Art; Chairman of the Special Committee on U. S. Trade with Eastern European Countries and the Soviet Union; Chairman of the United Nations Commission on Multinational Corporations; Trustee, National Humanities Center; Trustee, Carnegie Institution of Washington. He was president of the National Council of Churches from 1960 to 1963, and as such, he shaped the council into one of the strongest supporters of the civil rights movement. And he helped organize the 1963 civil rights movement on Washington and was one of three church leaders to help organize the National Conference on Race and Religion that same year. His views on equality were best characterized in the following remark, made in 1983:

“In the search for character and commitment, we must rid ourselves of our inherited, even cherished biases and prejudices.

“Character, ability and intelligence are not concentrated in one sex over the other, nor in persons with certain accents or in certain races or in persons holding degrees from some universities over others.

“When we indulge ourselves in such irrational prejudices, we damage ourselves most of all and ultimately assure ourselves of failure in competition with those more open and less biased.”

Last, but certainly not least, Miller advised presidents both in the U.S. and abroad, including John F. Kennedy and Nelson Mandela.

In 1967, Esquire magazine ran his profile on the magazine’s cover with the headline: “This man ought to be the next President of the United States.” Fortunately for tens of thousands of Cummins employees, and perhaps for Guff Muench, he was not.

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