J.D. Power III, founder of influential car quality survey, dies at 89

Marketing

James David Power III, who turned a scrappy home business that tracked customer satisfaction with new-vehicle quality into a giant global market research firm that today monitors everything from consumers’ experience with new-car sales and service, to auto lenders, airlines, health care providers, homebuilders and hoteliers, died Saturday.

He was 89 years old. He died Saturday of natural causes at his home in Westlake Village, Calif., son James David Power IV said by telephone.

J.D. Power, today headquartered in Troy, Mich., was launched in the family kitchen with automotive customer surveys that measured and ranked new-vehicle quality.

The company’s annual initial quality survey, which measures problems with new vehicles in the first 90 days of ownership, and a separate study that tracks long-term dependability, are perhaps the most closely watched performance benchmarks for reliability in the auto industry.

The company entered the auto market with its first client, Toyota Motor Co., in 1969.

It has expanded to include company rankings across a diverse range of industries, including electronics and appliances, fitness and recreation, media and entertainment, technology, software and more.

Power’s early automotive surveys helped detect consumers’ budding preference for front-wheel drive and the woes that prompted automakers to abandon the rotary engines favored by Mazda.

“He created a measurable standard,” Bob Lutz, former head of product development at General Motors and Chrysler, told Business Week in 1996. “For that, he deserves our utmost respect.”

Power, a former financial analyst at Ford who later represented General Motors as a marketing research consultant for Marplan, launched J.D. Power and Associates in 1968 in the family’s kitchen in Calabasas, Calif.

His wife, Julie, was co-founder, and their three children at the time were the associates.

Julie handled tabulations while their kids stuffed questionnaires and cover letters into envelopes, attaching quarters using tape as an incentive for recipients to return the survey.

It wasn’t until Julie noticed reports of Mazda breakdowns caused by defective O-rings while she was tabulating surveys in 1973 that J.D. Power and Associates gained distinction. Power wasn’t a car expert. He and Julie didn’t even know what an O-ring was, but they knew it was hurting the engine.

When the The Wall Street Journal reported Mazda’s engine problems, based on J.D. Power’s study, the company gained nationwide recognition and became a leading voice of customer data.

“Lo and behold we were in nearly every newspaper in the world and on the radio in 24 hours,” Power recalled in an interview with The Boston Globe in 2014. “The name J.D. Power started to get a lot of recognition.”

Power sold J.D. Power and Associates to McGraw-Hill in 2005. London-based XIO acquired J.D. Power from S&P Global Inc., formerly McGraw-Hill, in 2016 for $1.1 billion. It merged with Autodata Solutions in 2019, putting it under the ownership of Thoma Bravo, a private equity firm with offices in San Francisco and Chicago.

It was a radical thought in 1968, but with a simple mantra — “the customer’s opinion matters” — Power slowly began to win over each automaker: Mazda and Toyota early on, forging on to General Motors, followed by Volvo, Hyundai and Mitsubishi.

In 1976, Power launched a dealer attitude survey that detailed retail and distributor issues and helped establish a strong rapport with auto retailers. That study preceded the National Automobile Dealers Association’s own Dealer Attitude Survey.

Power’s research and findings, often critical of the Detroit 3, weren’t always welcomed.

He was booed at a 1980 auto industry conference in Detroit when he described his ways of measuring new-vehicle defects. Many in the audience jeered and heckled Power, with his family in attendance, as a meddling outsider.

“The hostility of the crowd was just unbelievable,” Power told Time magazine in 1993. “In another century they would have burned us as heretics.”

During the 1984 Super Bowl telecast, Subaru became the first automaker to advertise its J.D. Power rankings by running a commercial during the game.

Now more than 200,000 TV commercials and more than 2 billion print ad impressions refer to J.D. Power awards annually.

Power caused an uproar in 2003 when he published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal calling for more efficient ways to sell automobiles than the current dealer franchise system.

He suggested retailers build multibrand megastores — the automotive equivalent of Walmart — because it is a better way to satisfy customers. He blamed state franchise laws that allow dealers to act as barriers to efficient distribution.

“Today, there is a hefty price for those artificial and anachronistic controls,” he claimed in the column, “and they add 30 percent to the base cost of a manufactured automobile.”

While several dealers protested by withdrawing from the Power Information Network, launched in 1990 to collect retail sales data from thousands of dealerships, the company emerged largely unscathed.

The company continued to grow and expand and acquired the NADA Used Car Guide in 2015 and NADAguides.com in 2017.

James David Power III was born on May 30, 1931, in Worcester, Mass.

He graduated from College of the Holy Cross in 1953 and earned an MBA at the University of Pennsylvania in 1959.

Power served as a Coast Guard officer for four years in the mid-1950s and made three voyages to the Arctic and one to the Antarctic, relaying data to scientists for a better understanding of the polar regions.

Power applied lessons learned from his Coast Guard stint to his startup.

“You have to be true to yourself, true to everyone else that you run into,” he told the Coast Guard Compass in 2012. “I really learned teammates count and that you have to have the environment where everyone trusts everyone else.”

He worked as a financial analyst at Ford Motor Co. before joining Marplan as a marketing research consultant for General Motor’s Buick and GMC Truck and Coach divisions.

He also served as marketing research executive for construction and farm equipment manufacturer J.I. Case Co. and director of corporate planning at McCulloch Corp., a Los Angeles-based engine manufacturer.

He received the Automotive Hall of Fame’s Distinguished Service Citation in 1992, which is awarded to seven of the industry’s most accomplished leaders each year, and the Lone Sailor Award in 2012, which is given to sea service veterans who have stood out in their careers while carrying on the Navy’s core values of honor, courage and commitment. Power was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2014.

Julie Power died of multiple sclerosis in 2002. The Power family started the Kenrose Kitchen Table Foundation, which supports organizations honoring the memory of Dave and Julie Power, including the National Coast Guard Museum, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and College of the Holy Cross.

He is survived by his wife, Joan, whom he married in 2003, four children, their spouses, two step-daughters and numerous grandchildren.

For a man linked so directly to the review and reputation of hundreds of nameplates over the years, from minivans to luxury sedans to SUVs to sports cars, his favorite was somewhat peculiar.

Power told The Boston Globe in 2014 he coveted most the car he was driving at the time — a 2003 Mercury Marauder, a high-performance version of the Grand Marquis, mostly because of its simplicity and ease of operation.

“It’s the police package and looks like a police car. It’s rear-wheel drive. It has exceptional acceleration and steering,” Power told the paper. “I’ve had it for 10 years now, and I’ve only got 50,000 miles on it. I like it because it doesn’t have all those fancy push-buttons and touchscreens and all that. I just get in, turn the key, and drive off.”

Additional reporting by Jamie Butters.

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