Malcolm Baldrige was a native of Nebraska. He did not come from a poor family but he was born and raised in Omaha. It means that he grew up far away from the major urban centers of the United States and yet he became the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. However, being a part of the Reagan cabinet was not the most important achievement of his life. His legacy also includes the Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award (“MBQA”), a prize named in his honor.
The MBQA is considered the most prestigious award-giving body when it comes to excellence in the marketplace. The fact that it was named in honor of Malcolm Baldrige is not only a testament to his character but also to his passion to see an America that is great once again and maintain its status as an economic powerhouse. The following is an overview of Malcolm Baldrige life in Omaha, his stint in the U.S. Army, and then his contributions to the world of business and politics.
From Omaha to Washington, D.C.
Malcolm Baldrige was born in Omaha, Nebraska on October 4, 1922 (Sobel, p.16). It is important to understand his personal background to appreciate his success story. He grew up far-away from the commercial noise of New York and the intense political dealings that characterized Washington, D.C. It was in the slow-paced lifestyle of Omaha wherein Malcolm developed the leadership qualities that would serve him well in World War II and beyond.
He was the son of a lawyer named Howard Malcolm Baldgridge and Regina Conell Baldrige. On March 31, 1951 he married Margaret Trowbridge Murray. She bore him two daughters named Megan Brewster and Mary Trowbridge. But before all that, Malcolm decided to finish his studies first.
He prepared for college studying at Hotchkiss School in Connecticut. Afterwards he graduated from Yale University in 1944 with a degree in B.A. in English. However, before he graduated he had to take time-off from college because he volunteered to go join the U.S. Army in 1943 and as a private he was sent to the Pacific theater of war (Sobel, p.16). When he finally gave up his army life in favor of civilian life 1946, he was honorably discharged with the rank of captain.
In 1947 he entered the corporate world and started near the bottom. He joned the Eastern Malleable Iron Company in Naugatuck, Connecticut and his first job was to be the foundry foreman in the said company. But a little over four years later, he became the managing director of the Frazer and Jones division of the company. In 1957, ten years after joining Eastern Malleable Iron Company, Malcolm was the newly appointed executive vice president. Three years later he would assume the position of president.
He did not get to enjoy the top leadership position for a very long time because in 1962 he was recruited to work at Scovill Manufacturing Company in Waterbury, Connecticut . He became their new executive vice-president. A year later he was promoted once again and became the CEO of the said company.
In 1969 he became the Chairman of the Board. He turned the company around. In the ten years time that he worked at Scovill, he was able to quadruple the company’s earnings by successfully creating an international market for this brass-manufacturing firm (Levy, p.30). Malcolm Baldrige’s reputation as an excellent leader was evident to everyone who knew him and the offers began to come in.
While he was still Chairman of the Board at Scovill, Malcolm also held directorships in the following organizations: AMF, Inc.; White Plains, N.Y.; Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company of Hartford; Bendix Corporation; IBM, Inc.; Eastern Company; and Uniroyal Inc. (Sobel, p.16). He was also a trustee for the Swiss reinsurance Company and member of the Business Council and the Council on Foreign relations.
He did not always work for profit though, in 1968 he was the chairman and director of the Red Cross fund drive and he was also the trustee of the Waterbury Hospital and even found a way to help establish the Waterbury Non-Profit Development Corporation, an organization responsible for “promoting low-income housing and developing employment and recreational facilities for blacks” (Sobel, p.16). He was not only good at running profitable companies he was also interested in politics.
It can be argued that Baldrige always wanted to be business and politics at the same time. His father was not only a lawyer but also served in the Nebraska state legislature. His father also served as a Congressman from 1930 to 1932 (Levy, p.30). When Malcolm Baldrige was in his early forties he started to become active in the Republican Party and from 1964 to 1980 he served as a delegate to the Republican convention.
He began to get noticed in the Republican circle and so at one point he “headed President Richard Nixon’s Connecticut campaign in 1968 and George Bush’s unsuccessful campaign in 1980” (Levy, p.31). He may have suffered a setback with George Bush’s campaign but he was able to bounce back when he raised funds for the Ronald Reagan campaign (Levy, p.31). After Reagan took the White House the new president remembered the people who helped him get elected as president.
One month after Reagan assumed the presidency in 1981, he chose Baldrige to become the 26th secretary of Commerce of the United States of America and he also easily won the confirmation for the said cabinet post (Levy, p.31). When he was the secretary of commerce he “advocated free trade and deregulation” and he also understood the need for America to maintain superiority when it comes to excellence in producing products and services (Levy, p.31).
He sat on the Council on Commerce and Trade, Council on Economic Affairs as well as the Council on Natural Resources (Sobel, p.17). He succeeded in convincing Japan to accept “voluntary restraints on its exports” because he saw that the aggressive Japanese businesses were hurting the U.S. economy (Sobel, p.17). Later on his passion to improve the the level of competence of business leaders and their organizations was the main reason why his name is well-remembered even to this day.
Aside from his business and political dealings, Baldrige was also interested in a host of different things and one of which is the rodeo. In his private life, away from the spotlight, Baldrige was a professional steer roper. On July 25, 1987 while practicing for a rodeo competition, in Walnut Creek, California, he fell from a horse and died a tragic death (Sobel, p.17). But this was not the end of his story.
In the mid-1980s it was apparent to many U.S. leaders that American companies were no longer at par with their foreign counterparts in the international market. One of them was Malcolm Baldrige and when he was the Secretary of Commerce he was the “advocate of quality management as a key to U.S. prosperity and sustainability” (Spechler, p.1).
Less than a month after his death “the U.S. Congress passed Public Law 100-107, the National Quality Improvement Act, which established the Malcolm Baldgridge Quality Award (MBQA) for quality achievements in American manufacturing and services” (Milakovich, p.112). The main purpose of this law is to encourage American businesses, educational institutions and health care organizations to aim for excellence in the creation of goods and in the provision of services.
Behind this need for an award is the growing alarm that foreign competition was slowly overtaking the United States. The quality of foreign imports is slowly eclipsing American products. The award was an incentive to push US companies to increase their capability to become a global leader in their chosen industry by improving their manufacturing systems and quality control (Sallis, p.54). It easily became a much-coveted prize in the business world.
The former President Ronald Reagan was the first to hand out the award in 1988 (Milakovich, p. 112). In the first decade here the following were a few of the winners: Motorola, 1988 (Large manufacturing); Cadillac, 1990 (Large manufacturing); Texas Instruments, 1992 (Large manufacturing); AT&T, 1994 (Service); Wainwright Industries, Inc., 1994 (Small business).
These are trusted brands. The products and services that these companies offer are well-known and well-respected in their respective industries. The MBQA is a measuring rod that organizations and business leaders can use to gauge their performance.
The MBQA is govern by strict standards. There was a year, for instance,when the no one from the manufacturing sector won the award. This was explained by one commentator who wrote, “The Malcolm Baldrige Award is the highest honor any business can receive, and after 18 years has remained very difficult to win. As the criteria have changed over the years, the Baldrige has become an award for overall effectiveness of an organization, as opposed to an organization that simply has high quality products/services” (Brown, p. 2).
He also added that aside from a high-quality product and excellent service the MBQA examiners take a closer look at the quality of the business leaders, strategic planning; customer and market focus; human resources focus; process management; and results.
It is difficult to win this award. An organization must be able to take a long hard look at their current system and them improve in accordance to the standards of the MBQA. This is a good thing because they will be able to gauge where they are at and can further develop their capabilities. If not for the MBQA then the quality of products and services in the United States will continue to decline because there is no incentive that can encourage businessmen to go on to the next level.
Malcolm Baldrige demonstrated his passion for excellent service. It all started when he was a student, soldier and employee. His character and leadership skills became evident early on and so he was promoted several times until he became the CEO and then Chairman of the Board for a large corporation.
He could have easily rested on his laurels. However, he went on to test the political waters. He was successful as a member of the Republican Party until finally he became the 26th U.S. Secretary of Commerce. It was a tremendous achievement for him but it was not after his tragic death in 1987 that his name was immortalized in the business world. The Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award is a symbol of excellence and it was just fitting that it was named after a man of noble character and great work ethic.
Brown, Mark. Baldrige Award Winning Quality: How to Interpret the baldrige Critieria for Performance Excellence. 5th ed. New York: Productivity Press, 2006.
Levy, Peter. Encyclopedia of the Reagan-Bush Years. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.
Milakovich, Michael. Improving Service Quality: Achieving High Performance in the Public and Private Sectors. Florida: CRC Press, 1995.
Sallis, Edward. Total Quality Management in Education. 3rd ed.Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing Inc., 2002.
Sobel, Robert. Biographical Directory of the United States Executive Branch, 1774-1989. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1990.
Spechler, Jay. Managing Quality in America’s Most Admired Companies. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 1993.