Credited with developing GE's postwar reorganization and decentralization program which brought new flexibility and a sharper focus on specific markets, Ralph J. Cordiner was the fifth president of General Electric.
He was born in 1900 on a 1280-acre wheat farm in Walla Walla, Washington. He worked his way through Whitman College by doing odd jobs and selling washing machines. He graduated in 1922 with a degree in economics, and joined the Pacific Power and Light Company as a commercial manager. Within a year he joined the Edison General Electric Appliance Company, a GE affiliate, where he became Northwest manager and then Pacific Coast division manager in 1930. He transferred to Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1932 and became a leader of the Company's expanding appliance business, rising to manager of the Appliance and Merchandise Department in 1938.
Cordiner left GE in 1939 to become president of Schick, Inc., and is credited by Time magazine with putting that company "back on its feet" in a brief three-year tenure. In 1942, he went to Washington to work with GE president Charles E. Wilson on the War Production Board, returning to GE in 1943 as Wilson's assistant. In 1950, he was elected the Company's president, succeeding Wilson who, at President Truman's request, resigned to become director of the Office of Defense Mobilization.
Cordiner was elected chairman of the board and chief executive officer in 1958, and also served as president of the Company during 1961, prior to the election of Gerald L. Phillippe as president in August of that year.
To better cope with General Electric's burgeoning growth, Cordiner made each of some 120 department general managers responsible for a particular segment of GE business, handling assignments that he described as "not too big for one man to get his arms around." The organization reflected the view that the natural aggregate of many individually sound decisions will be better for the business than centrally-planned and controlled decisions. Cordiner outlined his decentralized management philosophy in the book New Frontiers for Professional Managers in 1956. He also established the GE Management Development Institute at Crotonville, New York, which opened an entirely new approach to the education of personnel for advanced management.
Cordiner was president of the Business Council, a group of business leaders who advised the government on business affairs. He also served as chairman of the Defense Advisory Committee on Professional and Technical Compensation in the Armed Forces.
The first Gold Medal Award of the Economic Club of New York City was conferred on Ralph Cordiner in recognition of his contributions to "principles of management and to the strength and prosperity of the nation."
In 1963, Cordiner retired after forty years of service to General Electric. He died in 1973.