In 1957, when J. Irwin Miller was chairman of the diesel engine manufacturer Cummins Corporation, he made a surprising offer to the company's headquarter city of Columbus, Indiana. The Cummins Foundation would pay the architecture fees for schools and other public buildings if the city agreed to choose from Irwin's list of preferred architects. That's how it happened that this small Midwestern city -- which still has fewer than 50,000 residents -- boasts a library designed by I.M. Pei and an elementary school designed by Harry Weese, among many other famous buildings. It all began with Miller's definition of success, which some would consider controversial even now.

Irwin Miller was only 35 when he became executive vice president of Cummins, and he became president three years later. His rapid ascendance had everything to do with nepotism: The company had been founded by his great-uncle William Glanton Irwin along with a mechanic named Clessie Cummins. But as he took the reins he brought along a philosophy that made all the difference to the company, and to Columbus. Rather than focusing only on investors or shareholders, Miller believed that to be successful, a company had to satisfy five different sets of stakeholders: customers, employees, partners, investors, and the community. It was with a view to this last set of stakeholders that he decided to reshape the city where his company was located.

Why focus on architecture? Miller's interest in the art form began with his friendship with Eero Saarinen who, with his father the architect Eliel Saarinen, helped design Columbus' iconic First Christian Church in 1942 -- it's said to have been the first modern church design in the nation. Eero and Miller were both in their 20s at the time, and they became lifelong friends. "Eero encouraged Miller to appreciate the power of the buildings that surround us," says Nancy Kriplen, author of the new book J. Irwin Miller: The Shaping of an American Town.

"Almost holy words."

Miller wanted to put Columbus on the map and he succeeded. "Columbus, Indiana, and J. Irwin Miller are almost holy words in architectural circles,'' wrote Paul Goldberger when he was the New York Times' architectural critic. Like many company leaders today, Miller also hoped to attract top talent to his home city. "He saw it as a challenge to get management candidates to come to Southern Indiana," Kriplen explains. "He knew they were all interested in good schooling for their children." That's when Miller hatched his plan to pay the architect's fees if the city worked with an architect on his list to build new schools.

It worked, and it's still working today. "I talked to an artist who had an exhibit in Columbus and he looked around and decided to move his family there," Kriplen says. "People come from all over because they want to see I.M. Pei's library. It's worked out beautifully for both Cummins and the community." Meantime, the city never suffered the downturn and empty factories that earned other Midwestern towns the title "Rust Belt."

Miller's five-stakeholders approach also made a big difference when the Congress of Industrial Organizations (later part of the AFL-CIO) sought to unionize Cummins. Miller had always had an outstandingly good relationship with his employees, and they wound up rejecting the CIO and forming their own union, the Diesel Workers Union. They made Miller an honorary member. Miller valued the union as much as it valued him. "Unions are management's mirror. They tell you things your own people won't admit," he once said. 

Miller died in 2004 at 95. Columbus is still much as he left it. And as for Cummins, it's a Fortune 500 company with revenues of about $24 billion that turned 100 years old last year.

Published on: Feb 28, 2020
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