How James David Power Made Detroit, and Customers, Raise the Standard for Quality

James David Power III at an auto plant quality-award presentation. J.D. Power It’s a name

J.D. Power
James David Power III at an auto plant quality-award presentation. J.D. Power

It’s a name millions of American car buyers have learned to trust and one the auto industry approaches with a mixture of respect and fear. 

Over the past half-century a company that started out at the kitchen table became the arbiter of automotive quality, reliability and customer satisfaction. This past weekend, the man who lent his name to J.D. Power and Associates passed away at 89.

Coast Guard veteran James David Power III got his start in the auto industry as a financial analyst at Ford and, later, as a market researcher for General Motors. But he soon left for California, “disillusioned,” he said in an interview, watching how “market research was twisted to the point it reflected what [the automakers] wanted to hear.  They would torture the data until it confessed.”

With wife Julie as partner, Power put a mortgage on their new home in the Los Angeles suburb of Calabasas and launched their own market research firm from the kitchen table. That was 1968, when the U.S. Big Three (GM, Ford, Chrysler) had 87% combined market share and General Motors six years earlier had a record 51% share. (In 2020, the Big Three had 43% combined share and GM share was 17%.) 

Toyota was the first to work with Power, in the 1960s. Now, the Lexus ES from Toyota’s sibling brand has the best reliability ever on a Vehicle Dependability Study, with 52 problems per 100 cars on the 2020 study. The 2021 VDS will be announced Feb. 10. Lexus

First Client: Toyota, Not Detroit Big 3

Power’s first client, Toyota, was determined to overcome the problems that had driven it out of the U.S. in the 1950s, and the research gathered by the newly formed company offered useful insight. The then-dominant Detroit automakers, intent on building and selling as many products as possible, were ignoring quality problems.

It was an opening Toyota embraced, the Japanese automaker building a reputation for reliability that today remains the foundation of the brand. 

Not all Japanese automakers, despite the conventional wisdom of that era, lived up to the same standards. Dave and wife Julie’s data revealed how Mazda vehicles powered by the distinctive Wankel rotary engine, were failing in as little as 40,000 miles. The research wound up in a Wall Street Journal story and helped launch the fledgling firm out of obscurity. Over the years, Power used media reports on its findings to drive customer demand for more reliable cars. 

Today, the J.D. Power enterprise covers quality and customer satisfaction in fields as diverse as health care and telecommunications. It even counted NASA a client. Power remains best known for its work in the automotive industry.

“Anybody Who Owns a Vehicle Benefitted”

“I truly believe that he did more to improve quality and customer service in the auto industry than any person in history,” said Dave Sargent, the head of automotive research for what is now known simply as J.D. Power. “Anyone who owns a vehicle has benefitted from his genius,” added Sargent in a Facebook post marking the passing of the company founder.

Indeed, where there were massive gaps between the industry’s best and worst brands and products when the groundbreaking Initial Quality Study was launched, the difference between a winner and a runner-up often is statistically insignificant today. But that just keeps automakers working hard to top the charts next year. With mechanical defects down this century, partly because of Power surveys that led consumers toward low-defect cars and automakers to reduce defects, IQS had to change also, now measuring softer issues such as satisfaction with infotainment, cabin controls, seat comfort, driving experience and climate controls. The Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS), measuring problems over three years, is now seen as the Power study with the most impact.

Booed in 1980. Enshrined with Henry Ford in 2014.

Power was booed during an automotive conference in 1980–Big Three market share at the time was a still robust 74%–but he eventually received the industry’s highest honor in 2014 with induction into the Automotive Hall of Fame alongside Henry Ford, Walter P. Chrysler and Soichiro Honda

“He created a measurable standard” for determining quality, Bob Lutz, one-time president of Chrysler Corp. and later General Motors’ car czar, said in a 1996 interview with Business Week. “For that, he deserves our utmost respect.”

Born on May 30, 1931 in Worcester, Mass., Dave Power sold his firm to McGraw Hill in 2005 but continued to consult for several years. The enterprise, now employing an army of analysts, researchers and data collectors, was sold again in July 2019 to equity firm Thoma Bravo, which also operates Autodata Solutions. Power succumbed to a long-term illness on January 23.