Marvin Bower's goal was to build an enduring institution, and for more than 60 years he dedicated himself to that proposition.
Widely credited with being the founder of professional management consulting, Bower was a member of McKinsey and its guiding influence from 1933, when he joined, through his retirement in 1995, and until his death in 2003 at the age of 99. He served as managing director from 1950 to 1967.
Vision and values
At Bower's retirement, former managing director Ron Daniel said that McKinsey's impact, reach, power, and influence are directly traceable "to Marvin: to his vision, his energy, his relentless determination, and his selfless commitment to making his firm—our firm—the preeminent institution it has become."
Warren Cannon, a consultant from 1949 to 1988, said that Bower "picked these principles, not because they were God-given, but because they were principles he really believed in. In almost every case that I know of, he was absolutely right. They were in the long-term interest of the firm.”
But he could be blunt. Jack Crowley, a retired director, recalls the time that Bower, in a client meeting with a CEO, "bellowed out, 'The problem with this company, Mr. Little, is you.' And there was a deathly silence. It happened to be totally accurate. That was the end of our work with that client, but it didn't bother Marvin."
Individuals in the firm who worked with Bower told stories about how he turned down opportunities to counsel prominent business leaders such as Howard Hughes, and when he refused to help the US government devise a bailout plan for American Motors. If he felt it was not in a company's interest for McKinsey to serve it or that top management was not committed to change, Bower wouldn't accept the company as a client.
In 1993, BusinessWeek wrote that Bower's 1968 decision on reaching the age of 65 to "sell his stock to the other partners at book value, rather than at a vast premium that might have forced the company into debt, helped make McKinsey an enduring institution. He also required older partners to sell their stock to younger partners well before they retired. 'Young people have got to get some shares,' he said. 'They have to gain a sense of ownership.' "
In a memo to the London Office on the occasion of his last visit as managing director, in 1967, Bower wrote: "My farewell hopes are these: First, that down the years our directors and principals will provide formal training and on-the-job coaching in the professional approach. Two, that down the years our directors and principals will shout out"—and this was underlined by Bower—"whenever they feel we're doing anything that might impair the enduring values of the professional approach or just letting those values erode through inattention. And third, that down the years our directors and principals will speak up whenever these principles that make up our philosophy are not being followed."