Campus & Community

Business School’s Milton P. Brown, retail and marketing expert, 90

7 min read

Harvard Business School (HBS) Professor Emeritus Milton P. Brown, an expert in retailing and marketing who for almost half a century influenced thousands of M.B.A. students and executives through his skills as an extraordinarily talented teacher, died on April 25 in Exeter, N.H. He was 90 years old.

“Milt Brown had an almost magical ability to engage students and get them involved in meaningful discussions about important issues in a case study,” said Walter J. Salmon, the Stanley Roth Sr. Professor of Retailing Emeritus at HBS.

Like all great teachers, Brown had a keen interest in his students. He “knew everyone’s name before the first day of class,” recalled Stephen A. Greyser, the School’s Richard P. Chapman Professor of Business Administration Emeritus and once a student in Brown’s first-year marketing class.

Although Brown was an early proponent of the use of computers and innovative management techniques in retailing, he always emphasized the importance of customer service and simply observing where change was happening in the marketplace and then trying to adapt to it as quickly as possible. “Unlike managers in many other businesses,” he said in a 1988 interview, “retailers can’t test-market their goods or formulate long-range plans that predict what will be in fashion in five years. Decision making is helped by the availability of more sophisticated data, but retailing is still an ad hoc, trial-and-error operation. If the red ones don’t sell, you mark them down and try some blue ones.”

According to Greyser, Brown “focused students’ attention on the consumer in terms of the buying process and its implications for selling and marketing programs. He had an instinctive capability to push people to try to understand how customers thought.”

During his career, Brown served as a director of some 17 companies. He said that his experience in the boardroom made him a better teacher in the classroom. “I was constantly facing new issues,” he explained. “In addition, the executives I met often made themselves available to visit my classes and talk with my students.”

For more than two decades, he was also chairman and CEO of the Harvard Coop, founded in 1882 to provide books and merchandise to the Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology communities. Advising the Coop’s president, who watched over the day-to-day operations of the stores, Brown saw the Coop grow to encompass a number of branches and become one of the largest and most successful retail cooperatives of its kind in the country.

Brown taught his first marketing class at HBS as a young instructor just after the end of World War II at the unexpected request of his mentor, the legendary HBS Professor Malcolm P. McNair, who organized the School’s first marketing and retailing courses and helped pioneer the development of case-method teaching. “I was paralyzed with fear, but I did it, although I never strayed more than six inches from the notes I had laid out all over the desk at the front of the room,” Brown once recalled.

Brown began to develop a teaching style that was rigorous, dramatic, and lively. The case method satisfied his penchant for pragmatic experience rather than the development of theory. “I’ve always felt that when it comes to business, theory is relatively shallow,” he said. “By analyzing hundreds of cases, our students participate in a wide array of business experiences and decisions. My role was to help them see issues they might have missed without me, but not to give them answers.”

Brown’s teaching also left a lasting mark on many senior executives in the School’s Advanced Management Program (AMP). One executive he inspired was a newspaper editor who wrote about Brown’s classroom technique in a column: “When Professor Brown wanted to make a point about the pervasiveness of Gold Toe socks in a case discussion about the men’s hosiery business, he asked how many students wore Gold Toes [so called because of their gold thread marks across the toes]. In seconds, 70 men kicked off their shoes. Brown had eased back onto a desk, slipped off his loafers, and was wiggling his Gold Toes. ‘See that? See that?’ he asked enthusiastically.”

Brown was a prolific case writer. During his HBS career, he published more than 150 cases, many of which became “excellent teaching vehicles for many years,” Salmon noted. He was well known among his research assistants as a stickler for precise English usage.

From the 1940s through the early 1960s, Brown was involved in the research that went into a series of published annual statistical studies on the cost of doing business in retailing. Initiated by McNair in 1920 with the publication of “Operating Results of Department and Specialty Stores,” these 50- to 60-page booklets, commonly known as the “Harvard Reports,” were influential in the evolution of the retail industry into a service-oriented, cost-effective business.

Born in Yonkers, N.Y., on Jan. 19, 1919, Milton Peers Brown grew up in Rochester, where he excelled in his studies from elementary school until his graduation from high school in 1936. He was also an accomplished musician, playing the flute and piccolo in school bands and orchestras.

Although his mother was a high school teacher and his grandfather a professor, Brown never intended to pursue a career in the classroom. Entering Harvard College in the fall of 1936, he majored in economics. Beyond the classroom, he played intramural football until a knee injury took him off the gridiron permanently. He fared much better, though, as a member of the Harvard marching band. He first became interested in retailing in 1937, when he worked in a department store in Rochester the summer between his freshman and sophomore years at Harvard College.

A member of John F. Kennedy’s class at Harvard College, Brown graduated cum laude in 1940 and entered HBS the next fall. To help pay his way, he sold his two instruments and accepted an offer from the Harvard Band to become its drillmaster. In that position, he earned $100 for planning the band’s half-time show formations at football games.

After Pearl Harbor, Brown registered for the draft with all his classmates in the reading room of Baker Library, but because of his bad knee and nearsightedness, he didn’t pass the physical. An offer to become McNair’s research assistant kept him at the School after he earned his M.B.A. in 1942.

“I had been thinking about going into retailing, but hadn’t been able to find a job,” he told an interviewer. “I thought I’d spend just a year or two with McNair and then leave, but I became more and more involved in my work, started teaching, liked it, and ended up staying on the faculty for 45 years.” Along the way, he met and married Joan Hawley, the daughter of an HBS faculty colleague, Henry C. Hawley. Promoted to full professor in 1958, Brown succeeded McNair as the Lincoln Filene Professor of Retailing in 1963. He retired from the active faculty in 1987 and received the Harvard Business School’s Distinguished Service Award in 1989.

In 1973, Brown joined the Advisory Committee of the Navy Resale and Services Support Office (NAVRESSO). Created after World War II, the committee was made up of seven distinguished civilians who advised the top managers of the U.S. Navy’s worldwide network of commissaries and exchanges.

Longtime residents of Weston, Mass., Brown and his wife retired to Exeter, N.H. They spent summers in North Lovell, Maine, in a summer home they had both designed. In retirement, Brown made good on his promise to be “unemployed but not inactive.” Besides his duties with the Coop and NAVRESSO, he continued to serve on several boards, including that of Dunkin’ Donuts.

In addition to his wife, Brown is survived by two daughters, Janet Slayton and Pamela Nahass, both of Millis, Mass.; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Burial will be private. A memorial service is planned at 2 p.m. on July 25 in Lovell United Church of Christ in Center Lovell, Maine. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Brown’s memory to Seacoast Hospice, 10 Hampton Road, Exeter, NH 03833.