At Ford, he was frustrated by bureaucracy and labor tension. Then Nissan came calling. The result was Japanese quality in America.
Earliest Nissan involvement: 1980
Role: Established Nissan's manufacturing operations in the United States
Key influence: A former Ford manufacturing executive, he took the best of both worlds, American and Japanese, to build top-quality Nissans in America.
Taken June 16, 1983, it shows workers at Nissan's new Smyrna, Tenn., assembly plant smiling and applauding as their white-haired CEO drives the first American-made Datsun truck off the production line.
Runyon's right hand is on the wheel, but it's his left that tells the story. Raised in a high fist, it exudes equal parts victory and defiance: Not only could Americans build a product with quality equal to or better than Japanese products; they could do it without the hidebound precepts of the Detroit 3.
Starting from scratch, Runyon melded the best of Japanese and American management styles to establish Nissan manufacturing in the United States.
Runyon was well-versed in the Detroit way. He was born in Texas, and in 1943, he joined his father at Ford Motor Co.'s Dallas assembly plant as a line worker.
By the time he took early retirement from Ford in 1980, he had become vice president of body and assembly. And like many Detroit managers at the time, he was frustrated with what he saw as bureaucratic business practices and unreasonable labor demands.
Starting from scratch
Then Nissan came calling. The Japanese automaker offered Runyon the once-in-a-lifetime chance to build a manufacturing operation from scratch.
“You don't get the chance to do that much in the car business — start with a clean sheet of paper,” says Jerry Benefield, another Ford executive whom Runyon handpicked as his No. 2 man for the Smyrna plant.
Nissan executives understandably were nervous about handing over their first manufacturing venture outside of Japan to an American.
Yoshikazu Hanawa, the lead adviser sent from Tokyo to help get the plant off the ground, said Nissan President Takashi Ishihara's orders to Runyon were clear and simple: From the first model that rolled off the line in Smyrna, the quality and cost of the vehicles had to be the same as those made in Japan. The rest, Ishihara said, was up to Runyon.
Said Hanawa: “This is really rare for a Japanese top executive. They are totally into micromanagement or talking about introducing the same management scheme into the U.S. But he never said that.” Hanawa later became chairman of Nissan Motor Co.
But where to start? At the time Nissan decided to build the Smyrna plant, no other Japanese automaker was building vehicles in the United States.
“There really wasn't any information available,” said John Schnapp, a former automotive consultant whose firm did some early planning studies for the Smyrna plant. “He invented it.”
Best of both worlds
Runyon's game plan was to pull from the best of American and Japanese management philosophies.
Hourly workers were called technicians. Executives and employees dined in the same cafeteria and parked in the same unreserved lot. And everyone, even Runyon, wore a uniform with his or her first name stitched on the breast pocket.
Runyon retired from Nissan in 1988 — but kept working.
As chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority from 1988 to 1992, he earned the nickname “Carvin' Marvin” for slashing the utility's payroll by a third. As postmaster general of the U.S. Postal Service, he eliminated a projected $2 billion deficit in his first full year in office.
Runyon died in Nashville in 2004 from pulmonary fibrosis. He was 79. His widow, Sue Atkinson, said that despite Runyon's multiple careers and 37-year tenure at Ford, he ultimately considered himself “a Nissan guy.”