FORMER MAY CO. CHAIRMAN DAVID BABCOCK IS DEAD AT 86
Byline: Jennifer Weitzman
NEW YORK — David E. Babcock, former chairman of The May Department Stores Co., died on Friday, July 13, in Vero Beach, Fla., from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was 86.
Babcock, who was celebrated as the “father of management development in the retail industry,” began his career at May Co. in 1967 as vice president of organizational planning and development as well as a member of the executive committee of the board of directors. He was elected president of May Co. in 1972, purportedly the first executive with a personnel background to head a major retail organization, and, in 1976 was named chief executive officer. He relinquished the ceo post to David Farrell in 1979 and retired in May 1980, underscoring his belief in personnel development by noting that, if he had done a good job, there would be no impact on the organization at all when he retired.
Although May Co. was considered a successful and well-run company, its top officers recognized that mergers and consolidation had stretched May Co.’s management. They point to Babcock’s leadership as helping unify the company and preparing it for a highly competitive future. In addition, Babcock introduced profit sharing for all levels of associates at May Co. and helped to build a strong board, largely from executives outside the company.
Before joining May Co., in 1951, Babcock worked for 16 years at Dayton’s Department Stores (now part of Target Corp.) as personnel director and was later named to its board.
“He was a remarkable man, a can-do guy,” Farrell, who retired as May Co.’s ceo in 1998, said in a telephone interview. “You look at May during the early early days, and David Babcock did a lot to shape the future direction of May Co.”
Farrell, who worked with Babcock throughout his career, said he had an excellent eye for talent and his major focus was on organizational efficiency, helping to lay the groundwork for May Co.’s success in the future. He said Babcock professionalized many processes that were part of the management’s success, including “management by objective” and the concept of tandem management, still very much in use at May Co. today.
“David focused in on the issues of mediocrity in retail,” Farrell said. “He had a wonderful thing about rotating the rejected.”
Babcock’s son Michael, who started working with May Co. in 1967 and later served as chairman and ceo of Filene’s, said his father loved to work with people from all walks of life: “He related to the lowest levels at the company every bit the way he related to the top at the business. He was really a country boy who made it to the top and never forgot.” After leaving May Co., Babcock served on the U.S. Postal Service board of governors and was a lifetime trustee of Lindenwood College in St. Charles, Mo., where the David E. Babcock School of Modern Business was dedicated in his honor.
Babcock is survived by his second wife, Dianne; three children from the marriage to his first wife, Dorothy, Michael, David Jr. and Christine Babcock Payne; and six grandchildren. Dorothy Babcock died in 1998.
Larry Leeds with Buckingham Research said Babcock was “a solid, reliable, yet soft-spoken gentleman” who helped “keep May on course. He was always extraordinarily thoughtful, making anyone who spoke with him feel at home, even though he was a senior American retailer.”
Born in Manitowak, Wisc., on Nov. 15, 1914, Babcock’s career included stints as a janitor’s assistant, farm laborer and cowboy, before joining the Army at 22.
Funeral services for Babcock will be held at 11 a.m. on July 19 at Ladue Chapel Presbyterian Church in St. Louis. Interment will follow on July 21 at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.