Harlow Curtice

Harlow Curtice

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Harlow Herbert Curtice was an American auto industry
Automotive industry in the United States
The American automobile industry began in the 1890s and rapidly evolved into the largest automotive producer in the world through the use of mass-production. The United States was the world's leader amongst motor vehicles main manufacturers many dozens years...

 executive who led General Motors (GM) from 1953 to 1958. As GM's chief, Curtice was selected as Man of the Year
Person of the Year
Person of the Year is an annual issue of the United States newsmagazine Time that features and profiles a person, couple, group, idea, place, or machine that "for better or for worse, ...has done the most to influence the events of the year."- History :The tradition of selecting a Man of the Year...

 for 1955 by TIME
Time (magazine)
Time is an American news magazine. A European edition is published from London. Time Europe covers the Middle East, Africa and, since 2003, Latin America. An Asian edition is based in Hong Kong...


Curtice was born in Petrieville, Michigan. He joined General Motors at age 20, and rose through its AC Spark Plug division to head it by age 36, and made the division profitable during the Depression. Selected to head the Buick division of GM, he expanded its line and made it profitable in the 1930s.

In 1948, Curtice became executive vice president of GM, and succeeded to the presidency in 1953 when GM president Charles Wilson
Charles Erwin Wilson
Charles Erwin Wilson , American businessman and politician, was United States Secretary of Defense from 1953 to 1957 under President Eisenhower. Known as "Engine Charlie", he previously worked as CEO for General Motors. In the wake of the Korean War, he cut the defense budget significantly.-Early...

 became Secretary of Defense. With Curtice as president, GM became immensely profitable, and became the first corporation to have $1 billion in profits in one year.

In 1958, Curtice retired just after his 65th birthday. The following year, he accidentally shot and killed a friend while duck hunting
Duck hunting
Waterfowl hunting is the practice of hunting ducks, geese, or other waterfowl for food and sport...

. He died in 1962 at age 69.

Early life

Curtice was born in Petrieville, Michigan, on August 15, 1893, the son of Marion Curtice and the former Mary Ellen Eckhart, and was raised in Eaton Rapids, Michigan
Eaton Rapids, Michigan
Eaton Rapids is a city in Eaton County in the U.S. state of Michigan. The population was 5,214 at the 2010 census.The city is located in the south of Eaton Rapids Township, on the boundary with Hamlin Township, though it is politically independent of both townships...

, attending Eaton Rapids High School. During school vacations, he kept the books for his father, a commission merchant, and also worked in a woolen mill. He graduated from the Ferris Business College
Ferris State University
Ferris State University is a public university with its main campus in Big Rapids, Michigan, USA. Founded in 1884 as the Big Rapids Industrial School by Woodbridge Nathan Ferris, an educator from New England who later served as governor of the State of Michigan and finally in the US Senate where...

 in 1914. After moving to Flint, Michigan
Flint, Michigan
Flint is a city in the U.S. state of Michigan and is located along the Flint River, northwest of Detroit. The U.S. Census Bureau reports the 2010 population to be placed at 102,434, making Flint the seventh largest city in Michigan. It is the county seat of Genesee County which lies in the...

 later in 1914, Curtice began his meteoric rise at GM. He started as a bookkeeper for GM's AC Spark Plug Division. The 20-year-old, in his job interview by the company comptroller, told him that his ambition was to become comptroller himself within a year. He did so, becoming AC Spark Plug's comptroller
A comptroller is a management level position responsible for supervising the quality of accounting and financial reporting of an organization.In British government, the Comptroller General or Comptroller and Auditor General is in most countries the external auditor of the budget execution of the...

 at just 21. Curtice went beyond the ledger, exploring the plant to find out what the figures meant in terms of men and equipment.

After a brief period of service as an Army enlisted man, Curtice resumed his career at AC Spark Plug, becoming assistant general manager in 1923 and president in 1929. While other product lines struggled with or were destroyed by the Depression, Curtice's AC Spark Plug Division expanded and prospered.


GM's Buick
Buick is a premium brand of General Motors . Buick models are sold in the United States, Canada, Mexico, China, Taiwan, and Israel, with China being its largest market. Buick holds the distinction as the oldest active American make...

 division was having great difficulties during the Depression (according to Curtice, production was at only 17% of 1926 levels). Curtice was put in charge, and quickly made a new organization for Buick, and marketed a new car. He also created a small network of dealers that would be exclusively Buick dealers. Curtice guided Buick through the war years and by the time he was elevated to a GM vice presidency, he had made Buick the fourth best selling car line.

During World War II, Buick produced aircraft engines with such efficiency that the Army considered making Curtice a General, but he declined. In 1946, GM President Charles Wilson offered him the position of executive vice president—to be Wilson's right hand man—but Curtice declined, stating that he wished to see Buicks rolling again off the assembly line before he left the division. In 1948, Wilson offered the position again to Curtice; this time he accepted.

Curtice had greater power as executive vice president than any prior holder of that position. He was in charge of all staff matters. In 1953, Wilson left after President Dwight Eisenhower appointed him Secretary of Defense. GM's board of directors appointed Curtice to take Wilson's place.


Curtice kept GM's tradition of letting division heads be effectively autonomous. However, with GM's Allison Division (aircraft motors) lagging in 1953, he stepped in personally to help run the division and find money for a massive investment for a new line of engines that again made the division competitive with Pratt & Whitney. In 1955, Eastern Airlines' Eddie Rickenbacker
Eddie Rickenbacker
Edward Vernon Rickenbacker was an American fighter ace in World War I and Medal of Honor recipient. He was also a race car driver and automotive designer, a government consultant in military matters and a pioneer in air transportation, particularly as the longtime head of Eastern Air Lines.-Early...

 placed a large order for the new engines. In his first two years as president, Curtice traveled abroad twice, spending millions each time with on-the-spot decisions.

The early months of Curtice's rule at GM saw fears of a recession. In February 1954, with the economy still lagging, Curtice announced that GM would spend $1 billion (approximately $12 billion today) in expanding its plants and facilities in anticipation of the boom to come. This set off a spree of capital spending by other corporations, which helped ensure the recovery of the economy. Ford matched the billion with a billion of its own, while Chrysler announced plans to spend $500 million. Meanwhile Curtice, a poker player, upped the ante by announcing plans to spend a second billion. Curtice saw that the economy would recover, and was prepared for it. In 1955, GM sold five million vehicles and became the first corporation to earn a billion dollars in a year. Curtice was given Time magazine's "Man of the Year" recognition for 1955 because "in a job that required it, he has assumed the responsibility of leadership for American business. In his words 'General Motors must always lead.'" During his presidency, he was only at his home in Flint, Michigan
Flint, Michigan
Flint is a city in the U.S. state of Michigan and is located along the Flint River, northwest of Detroit. The U.S. Census Bureau reports the 2010 population to be placed at 102,434, making Flint the seventh largest city in Michigan. It is the county seat of Genesee County which lies in the...

 at the weekends; he remained at GM headquarters during the week.

In 1956, he announced plans to devote another billion to capital investment, the largest such sum ever invested by a single firm in a single year. At the peak of his earning ability, he made $800,000 per year (over $9 million today).

Later life

Upon reaching age 65, Curtice retired on August 31, 1958. He remained a director of GM. In 1959, he suffered tragedy when he accidentally shot and killed retired GM vice president, Harry W. Anderson, while on a duck hunting trip to Canada.
Curtice resided in Flint throughout his career. He died at his home in Flint in 1962, aged 69, of an apparent heart attack. He was survived by his wife, three daughters, and a brother.

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