David Power, founder of influential J.D. Power car quality survey, dies at 89

James David Power III, who turned a scrappy home business that tracked customer satisfaction with new-vehicle quality into a giant global market research firm that today monitors everything from consumers’ experience with new-car sales and service, to auto lenders, airlines, health care providers, homebuilders and hoteliers, died Saturday. He was 89.

Power died of natural causes at his home in Westlake Village, Calif., his son, James David Power IV, said by telephone.

J.D. Power, today headquartered in Troy, Mich., was launched in the family kitchen with automotive customer surveys that measured and ranked new-vehicle quality.

The company’s annual initial quality survey, which measures problems with new vehicles in the first 90 days of ownership, and a separate study that tracks long-term dependability are perhaps the most closely watched performance benchmarks for reliability in the auto industry.

The company entered the auto market with its first client, Toyota, in 1969.

Toyota, which was relaunching in the U.S. after flopping in the market in the 1950s, tapped Power as an adviser. Toyota executives asked Dave Power to suggest ways to impress American customers. His first assignment for the Japanese automaker was an import buyer study covering Southern California. Power came up with two ideas to help Toyota: Offer better braking and improved rust protection. The company listened and followed through.

Years later, when Power began publishing the company’s customer satisfaction ratings, Toyota excelled. U.S. consumers noticed and Toyota was on its way to sales and markey success.

A spy?

But it wasn’t always easy. In the early days, some American executives at Toyota distrusted him and thought he was a spy, Power recalled later.

J.D. Power has expanded to include company rankings across a diverse range of industries, including electronics and appliances, fitness and recreation, media and entertainment, technology, software and more.

Power’s early automotive surveys helped detect consumers’ budding preference for front-wheel drive and the woes that prompted automakers to abandon the rotary engines favored by Mazda.

“He created a measurable standard,” Bob Lutz, former head of product development at General Motors and Chrysler, told Business Week in 1996. “For that, he deserves our utmost respect.”