Allen, William McPherson (1900-1985)

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 10/26/2005
  • Essay 7520
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William McPherson Allen served the Boeing Company as president from 1945 to 1968 and is credited with leading the company into the jet age and providing a strong and enduring tradition of integrity and leadership. In 1954, the same year the Boeing 707 made its maiden flight and took air travel into the jet age, the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named William Allen Seattle's First Citizen of the year.

William Allen was born in Lolo, Montana, near Missoula, on September 1, 1900. His father was a prosperous mining engineer and his mother was a suffragist and prohibitionist who closed three saloons and built a church. He attended the University of Montana where, by his own admission he "spent a lot of time sitting around sorority houses" (Rodgers, 75). He received a law degree from Harvard Law School in 1925 and found a job as a staff lawyer for the firm of Donworth, Todd, and Higgins in Seattle.

One of the law firm's clients was the Boeing Airplane Co., and Allen was assigned to handle the tiny company's legal affairs. In 1928, Allen drew up the legal papers for the merger of Boeing Air Transport and Pacific Air Transport into what would become United Air Lines. He took care of United's legal affairs too. In 1930, Allen joined the Boeing Board of Directors and became legal counsel while still working for the law firm. He became a partner in 1939 and the firm became Todd, Holman, Sprague & Allen. Historian Eugene Rodgers described Allen as "a brown-eye, brown-haired, slender man ... slightly jug-eared, ruddy, and balding." "Seemingly born in black shoes and a dark blue three-piece suit, he was a stereotypical archconservative Republican" (Rodgers, 74-76). In 1927, Allen married his high school sweetheart, Dorothy Dixon, in Missoula. They moved to The Highlands, a gated community north of Seattle, and had two daughters, but in 1943 Dorothy died of cancer. The loss devastated Allen.

In September 1944, Boeing President Philip Johnson died suddenly and the Board of Directors searched for a replacement, someone who could bridge the gulf that had grown between the engineering and manufacturing staffs in the hectic war years. Allen turned down the offer of the position. He argued that he was a lawyer and not an engineer, nor an industrial specialist, nor a financier. He felt unqualified and the charismatic Johnson left a large pair of shoes to fill. Acting President Claire Egtvedt pressed Allen and he accepted the presidency on March 23, 1945. Allen could not leave his law firm until the following September because so many lawyers were in military service. His desire to remake his life without Dorothy made the offer from Boeing all the more intriguing.

Allen took over the company at a critical time. Contracts for the Boeing B-17s and B-29s that pummeled German and Japanese cities into dust and ash were being canceled and assembly lines sputtered to a halt. Employment in Seattle fell from 35,000 (one in six Seattle residents) to 6,000, and in Wichita from 16,000 to 1,500. Boeing was almost completely out of business.

But the civilian aviation industry was poised for expansion with wartime developments like four-engined Lockheed Constellation and Douglas DC-4. Navigational aids and avionics helped overcome the limitations of weather. Hundreds of long concrete runways all over the U.S. and around the world, and thousands of less permanent airports provided the infrastructure for scheduled air service virtually everywhere on the planet. Hundreds of thousands of engineers, pilots, navigators, and mechanics who built and flew warplanes stood ready to beat these aluminum swords into plowshares of transportation. Millions of Americans became accustomed to crossing the continent by air in less than a day. They were unlikely to return to the railroads for travel.

Boeing’s first post-war bid to profit from airline travel was the Model 377 Stratocruiser adapted from the B-29 bomber. Originally designed to be an in-flight tanker and military transport, it offered range and room that seemed ideal for non-stop transcontinental and trans-oceanic airline service. But, despite the Stratrocruiser’s impressive performance, Boeing sold only 55 planes. The company did succeed with military designs for the B-47 and B-52 jet bombers and by 1947, the company was in the black again.

During the 1948 strike by the International Association of Machinists, Allen earned a reputation as anti-labor. When it came to the IAM contract, he was determined to abolish a seniority system established during the war years that allowed unqualified senior workers to bump junior people. This played havoc with production. Allen would have preferred to deal with Dave Beck’s Teamsters who tried to organize the machinists. The 140-day walkout resulted in a defeat for the Teamsters, a win for the company, and enduring acrimony between the union and management. Outwardly Bill Allen was a shy man, though he was quite compassionate privately. Bill Allen’s reserved demeanor reinforced his image as an unfeeling corporate technician, so unlike predecessor Johnson who frequently strolled across the shop floor and spoke to workers.

Bill Allen could be an inspiring speaker and he was very comfortable representing the industry before the public and before Congressional committees. As Historian Robert J. Serling put it, "’Allen of Boeing’ seemed to command instinctive respect, a kind of immediate admission that any scandal-seeking congressman was going to get his fingers burned if he tried tangling with this symbol of industrial integrity" (Serling, 71).

Allen required that Boeing employees could not accept free rides or even free meals from airline customers and he warned his sales force of the limits in courting customers with gratuities. Although he drank socially, he forbade the serving of alcoholic beverages on company property. He encouraged employees to use a variety of airline carriers to avoid the appearance of playing favorites. But he preferred to use Northwest Airlines himself, even while making a sales call on United Air Lines.

Allen’s conservative lifestyle extended to Boeing’s outward image as well. Instead of building a landmark world headquarters in downtown Seattle, Allen stuck with the almost-industrial office building at Boeing Field. He was sensitive to the idea that Seattle might be perceived as a company town for the aerospace giant. At the same time, he encouraged Boeing workers to get involved in the community and in 1954, the Seattle Association of Realtors named him Seattle's First Citizen.

In the early 1950s, Boeing was not a player in the commercial airplane market. Douglas and Lockheed had the best propeller-driven designs, but Boeing commanded the field of large jet military aircraft. When Bill Allen heard that Lockheed might be working on a jet airliner, he ordered preliminary work on Boeing's response and set about soliciting development funding from airlines. Airlines were cautious about the costs and safety of the new technology -- DeHavilland's jet Comet in 1949 proved economically indifferent and ultimately unsafe. The U.S. Air Force would not nibble on the idea of a jet tanker and even many Boeing executives were leery of the commercial airplane business. Allen felt differently. After he took a ride in a jet B-47 in Wichita in 1950, he found the DC-6 prop plane he took to Chicago to be impossibly slow.

Boeing profits from military contracts in the early 1950s created tax problems for the corporation. Conventional wisdom argued in favor of improving the company for the tax write-off. In 1954, Allen elected to quietly devote $16 million (a tax savings of 82 cents on the dollar) to develop a jet airliner and an air refueling tanker which no one yet seemed interested in buying. This became the Boeing 707. The week that the 707 prototype took its maiden flights in July 1954, Allen appeared on the cover of Time magazine which cited three main attributes, "He knew when to gamble. He trusted his designers. He knew how to forge a team" (The Seattle Times).

When test pilot Tex Johnson performed an unannounced barrel roll in the prototype for thousands of fans at the hydroplane races on Lake Washington in July 1955, Allen at first thought there might have been something wrong with the airplane. When Johnson admitted he had rolled on purpose, Allen became angry. In 1977, Allen told an audience, "It has taken nearly 22 years for me to reach the point where I can discuss the event with a modicum of humor" (Serling, 131). The 707 became one of Boeing's most enduring legacies with almost 2,000 airframes produced for civilian and military use over the next four decades.

Allen entertained aviation industry giants at the annual meetings of the Aircraft Industries Association at his home in The Highlands. In 1948, he married Margaret Ellen "Mef" Field and together they raised his two daughters. He loved to golf, and he smoked a pipe until Mef told him to do it out of her presence. Then he quit. He helped organize United Good Neighbor, later United Way. Mef Allen was very active in the community as well and she served for more than 20 years as a trustee for Children's Orthopedic Hospital.

In 1968 as Allen approached his 68th birthday, he retired as president and moved up to Chairman of the Board. In 1970, he came back for a few months to take over from President T. A. Wilson after Wilson's nearly-fatal heart attack. In 1972, Allen retired from the company completely and served as chairman emeritus and honorary chairman. In 1975, Allen was named to Fortune magazine's Hall of Fame. He died on October 29, 1985, after suffering for several years from Alzheimer's.

Bill Allen's leadership and community service are acknowledged by the Boeing Company's William Allen Award for outstanding volunteer service by a Boeing Employee, and the William Allen Lectureship endowment at Whitman College.

Sources: Robert J. Serling, Legend & Legacy: The Story of Boeing and Its People (New York: St. Martins's Press, 1992); Eugene Rodgers, Flying High: The Story of Boeing and the Rise of the Jetliner Industry (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996); Polly Lane, "Allen Decisions Put Boeing at Top," The Seattle Times, October 30, 1985, p. D-1; "Jet-Age Pioneer -- Allen Set Standard," Ibid., October 30, 1985, p. A-12; Polly Lane, "Ex-Boeing Chairman Allen Dies," Ibid., October 29, 1985, p. A-1.

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