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Charles Luckman: The ‘Boy Wonder’ Looks Back

February 7, 1987 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ President of a major consumer products company at 37, founder of a nationally known planning and architecture firm, Charles Luckman is one of those rare individuals who made it to the top - twice.

Luckman’s architecture career was interrupted by a 18-year rise to the top job at Lever Brothers, but he says the switch was not the icewater bath he thought it would be.

″I really thought I’d be literally turning my back and starting over,″ he said in an interview. Instead, he was surprised to find how much of what he had learned in the soap business turned out to be helpful when he was an architect.


In both cases, Luckman said, the same fundamentals were crucial for success: selling, imagination and an ability to get along with all people - with an emphasis on the ″all.″

″A lot of people can get along with their equals,″ he said. ″There are less who can get along with their superiors, and far less who can get along with their underlings.″

Luckman, who lives in Los Angeles, no longer practices architecture, and was succeeded as head of Luckman Partnership Inc. by his son James. As head of Luckman Management Co., he now oversees 11 office and apartment buildings around the nation.

The mark of the partnership he started is everywhere: New York’s Madison Square Garden, Los Angeles International Airport, Boston’s Prudential Center, the Phoenix Civic Plaza and Aloha Stadium in Honolulu are a few of its hundreds of projects.

For Luckman, architecture was the fulfullment of a dream that was detoured with the start of the Depression in 1931.

Fresh out of school, and newly licensed to practice in Illinois, he was unable to find any work. So he took a ″temporary″ job as a salesman for Colgate-Palmolive-Peet Co. in 1931.

Hired away by Pepsodent Co. four years later, he wound up as its president at the age of 33.

Until he became head of Pepsodent, Luckman said, he rarely discussed his views on employee relations, some of which were rather liberal for the times. And when he did speak out, ″it drew a lot of criticism from my fellow executives,″ he added.

″I was saying that people are entitled to be treated as fellow human beings, and if you do so you will have personal satisfaction and make more money for your company. That was the essence. ″


″Many of the things I did were new at the time, but are not today,″ he said.

As an example, he cited a strong belief in market research, even to the point where as chief executive, he would make occasional door-to-door forays - incognito - into neighborhoods to test consumer reactions to his company’s products.

″When I lecture students, one axiom I use is, ’Learn to listen and listen to learn,‴ Luckman said.

To illustrate, Luckman recounted a visit where a housewife criticized a competitor’s product. When Luckman said he thought it was a good product, she led him to the kitchen and used the soap on some dishes.

The soap took off the dirt, but not the underlying grease, he recalled. ″I said, ‘Well, I never knew that.’ And she said, ‘Well, young man, you have a lot to learn about the soap business.’ I said, ‘Yes, Ma’am, I do.’

The same technique was useful in architecture, he said.

Soon after forming the partnership, he took a group of young architects to a hospital, where he queried the administrators on their ideas of good design.

″They all agreed to certain points,″ he said. ″For example, beds should face the window, because patients starting their recovery like to see the blue sky, some trees and so forth.″

Luckman then asked five patients if they would like to make any changes in the location of their beds.

″All five said, ’Sure. Turn it around to face the door. We get so bored with nothing to look at. We’d like to see what’s going on out in the hall,″ Luckman said. ″So in our first hospital design, we reversed the procedure.″

″We learned our lesson: First talk to the managers, maybe the owner, and then go visit the tenants,″ he said.

″Listening to learn″ was also a policy Luckman applied as president of Pepsodent, where, he said, he instituted its first committee of employees to talk with management.

On wages, he said: ″It seems strange to me that some of us in industry were trying to keep wages as low as possible, whereas we had adequate proof that every time the standard of living was raised, we, as manufacturers, made more money.

″Today, I think somewhere between 50 percent and 60 percent of corporations have this point of view. They pay what they think is fair, not how low they can get by with.″ Others, he said, ″still have some catching up to do.″

Luckman praised today’s unions for restraining demands or taking pay cuts when companies are in trouble.

″This is the ultimate of my philosophy: When business is good, you give to them. And when it isn’t, they ought to be willing to work with you. How do you get them do do this? That’s what motivation is,″ he said.

″A lot of people are mistaken. They think motivation is: How do you get people to do what you want them to do?

″That’s crazy. Motivation is how do you get people to do their best. That’s all you need to get from people. If they do their best, everything will come out all right,″ Luckman said.

Lever Brothers, a part of Unilever Ltd., bought Pepsodent in 1944. Two years later, when Lever Brothers’ president retired, Luckman took over. He was 37 years old.

His rapid rise did not go unnoticed by the press; Time magazine dubbed him the ″Boy Wonder.″

Eventually, Luckman said, he ran into Time’s publisher.

″I told him, ‘I’ve been fighting to be dignified. I wore stiff celuloid collars, dark suits. I lowered the cadence of my voice - and you come along with this tag 3/8’

″He said, ‘Chuck, don’t worry about it. Don’t worry until we start saying ’the former boy wonder.‴

As turned out, Lukman - and Lever Brothers - were headed for rocky times when he took over in 1946.

The reason was Procter & Gamble Co.’s introduction that year of Tide, the world’s first laundry detergent.

Lever Brothers’ Rinso had just lost it place as the nation’s top-selling household soap powder - to Procter & Gamble’s Oxydol - and further, Lever Brothers had done no work on developing its own detergent, Luckman said.

He said he regained the soap lead for Rinso and carried out a plan to get detergent products on the market within three years.

But the company never caught up to Procter & Gamble in total sales because of Tide’s overwhelming success - leading to some speculation that Unilever’s board held Luckman accountable, forcing him to step down in 1950.

Luckman denies this, claiming he resigned after Unilever reneged on a promise to deliver advertising support for Surf, Lever Brothers’ response to Tide.

In any case, his departure - several months after the company had moved from Boston to New York - came with an appropriate omen of things to come, as construction started on the company’s new headquarters building.

Designed by the prestigious firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Lever House soon achieved a world reputation as a landmark of modern architecture.

Meanwhile, Luckman said, his architectural career ran into an unexpected snag: He did not discover until after he quit and moved to California that the license he had kept up since graduation was invalid in that state.

″I would never have gone back to architecture had I known I would not get a reciprocal license,″ he said. ″I had a lot of courage, but I think I wouldn’t have risked what the press would have done to me under the headline ’Boy Wonder Fails.‴

End Adv Friday Feb. 6