09 Mar 2015
Harvard Business School Professor Emeritus Walter J. Salmon Dies at 84
A giant on the HBS faculty as teacher, researcher, and administrator, he was one of the world’s greatest experts on retailing and marketing
Walter J. Salmon
Photo: Harvard Business School

BOSTON—Legendary Harvard Business School (HBS) professor Walter J. Salmon (MBA 1954, DBA 1960), long one of the world’s leading experts on retailing, retail distribution, and marketing, who for more than forty years influenced thousands of students, executives, and other academics through his broad-based research, exceptional teaching, and unsurpassed knowledge of retail stores and consumers’ relationship with them, died yesterday (Sunday, March 8) at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston from complications of a stroke. He was 84 years old. At the time of his death, he was the School’s Stanley Roth, Sr. Professor of Retailing, Emeritus.

According to HBS professor Rajiv Lal, an authority on retailing who now holds the Roth chair, “Walter was a legend in our field. His knowledge was extensive, and his intuition was precise and always on the mark. It was not surprising that he served on the boards of many retail companies, and that his advice was much sought after. I do not know of any academic who was revered as much by the retail industry,” Lal observed. “For me personally, he was a mentor, colleague, and dear friend, without whose presence my career at HBS would not be as fulfilling. All that having been said, what I admired most about Walter was that he was the most wonderful human being I have known. He was a man of great compassion and kindness, who took great joy in helping whoever he could, however he could. We will all miss him greatly.”

Added Salmon’s longtime friend and colleague, Stephen A. Greyser, the Richard P. Chapman Professor of Business Administration, Emeritus, “Walter Salmon was a truly legendary Harvard Business School faculty member and one of the most distinguished professors of his time. Mentored by the iconic Professor Malcolm P. McNair, who developed the field of retailing at HBS, he excelled in all dimensions of HBS faculty endeavor—a superb teacher, who held MBA and Executive Education participants alike to ‘doing the numbers,’ an excellent developer of both cases and courses, an author of cogent field-based and practice-oriented research, an effective mentor of peers and young faculty, an admired citizen in both HBS and Harvard University service, and a widely-sought corporate and nonprofit director. Significantly,” Greyser continued, “Walter was also a wonderful human being. With his characteristic smile, friendly style, and consistent kindness, he taught us what collegiality and friendship were, and what an HBS faculty member should do and be.”

The red-haired and amiable Professor Salmon was a readily recognizable figure on the HBS campus for decades, coming to campus regularly until near the end of his life to continue his work at the School’s Senior Faculty Center. Beloved by students and colleagues alike, he was a mentor to legions of them over the years, including Tom Stemberg (MBA 1973). “Walter Salmon played a huge role in shaping my career and advising me when I was about to start a new business, which turned out to be Staples,” Stemberg once commented.

Widely known for his ability to bridge business theory and practice, Salmon had a broad global view of retailing and an intimate knowledge of the strategies and key players in the industry. During his 41 years as an active member of the HBS faculty, he taught a wide variety of MBA courses in both the first- and second-year curricula, including the required first-year Marketing course and electives in retailing and consumer marketing as well as offerings in the Doctoral programs. For a time, he was course head of first-year Marketing and head of the School’s Marketing Unit.

In Executive Education, he was on the faculty of the Advanced Management Program for senior executives, the Program for Management Development for middle managers, and a corporate governance program known as Making Corporate Boards More Effective. He also participated in and chaired the Top Management Seminar for Retailers and Suppliers.

David E. Bell, the School’s George M. Moffett Professor of Agriculture and Business and current head of the Marketing Unit, noted, “Walter was clearly a mainstay of marketing at HBS throughout his long and distinguished career, teaching a wide array of courses and serving as an effective administrator. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the retailing industry and an insatiable curiosity about the way businesses worked, along with plenty of ideas as to how to improve them. All that, plus his ability to get things done, made him a prime choice for our courses and for company boards. But people also flocked to him because he combined all that information and energy with an extraordinary amount of wisdom and good judgment.”

Salmon also held a number of important administrative positions at the School, serving as Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs from 1974 to 1977 under Dean Lawrence Fouraker (a role that made him the manager of the faculty and put him in charge of faculty appointments) and later as Senior Associate Dean and Director of External Relations for Dean John H. McArthur, Jr, from 1989 to 1994. In the latter role, he represented the School to alumni groups around the country and the world, welcomed them to campus during reunions and other special events, and even helped edit citations for the recipients of Alumni Achievement Awards – something he did out of his love of English and admiration for good writing.

“Walter was a very special person who brought so much knowledge and ability to the table and possessed so many wonderful qualities as a human being,” said former Dean McArthur upon learning of Salmon’s death. “He was, of course, Mr. Retailing, well known to and respected by all the major players in the industry. And no one spent more time trying to help generations of HBS students find jobs in the retail sector. As for Walter’s kindness, I can speak from personal experience going all the way back to my days as a first-year MBA student in 1957. I was standing in the rain one day after class, waiting for a bus to take me back to my apartment, when Professor Salmon drove by and offered me a ride. He assured me that it wasn’t out of his way. Only later did I learn that he lived miles away in the other direction. That’s the sort of person Walter was – universally loved by all who learned from him and all who worked with him.”

Salmon’s research focused on matters such as trends in distribution, issues of organization and logistics, and retailing information systems. He also studied how to balance consumer interests in breadth of selection with their desire for low prices.

A prolific case writer, he authored or coauthored several hundred case studies, delving deeply into companies as diverse as L.L. Bean, Gap, Lowe’s, J.C. Penney, Nordstrom, Dayton Hudson, Talbot’s, Dillard’s, Stride Rite, Liz Claiborne, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Toro. Salmon said that he found the creation and use of new and interesting course material one of the most satisfying aspects of teaching, noting that the ideal case “generated heat and light, an explosion – and refinement -- of logical thinking.”

He also authored or coauthored more than seven books, including Product Profitability Measurement and Merchandise Decisions, Strategic Retail Management, An Introduction to Retailing, and Problems in Marketing, and wrote myriad working papers, book chapters, and journal articles.

Walter J. Salmon (the middle initial did not stand for another name, said a family member) was born on Nov. 16, 1930, in New York City, where he grew up. He graduated from the City College of New York in 1952 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. He first became interested in marketing and retailing while in college, when he worked part-time at Bloomingdale’s and then in a New York buying office for a large group of department stores.

He received his MBA from Harvard Business School in 1954, graduating with high distinction as a Baker Scholar. He then completed two years of military service, serving in the U.S. Army Logistics Management Center, where, fittingly, he wrote cases for the Armed Forces Management School. He began his academic career at HBS in 1956, when he returned to Soldiers Field as a research assistant for the larger-than-life Professor McNair, widely regarded as the father of retail economics scholarship and one of the “master builders” of Harvard Business School.

Salmon earned a Doctorate in Business Administration (DBA) at Harvard in 1960, when he was also named an assistant professor. He rose to full professor with tenure in only seven years, at the age of 37. Three years later, he received the Salgo Award for Excellence in Teaching, given by colleagues for “exciting and inspiring teaching.” He was named the first Sebastian S. Kresge Professor of Marketing in 1970 and became the first incumbent of the Roth chair in 1980.

Salmon’s teaching was informed by his involvement in consulting assignments and service on numerous boards, including the Neiman Marcus Group, Circuit City Stores, PetsMart, Stride Rite, Zayre, T.J. Maxx, and BJ's. He was also a director of the Quaker Oats Company and non-executive chairman of Hannaford Brothers, a New England-based supermarket chain. In addition, he was a director of the Tufts Associated Health Plan Inc., Harvard Business School Publishing, and the National Retail Federation.

Beyond the classroom and boardroom, Salmon enjoyed traveling and spending time at his summer home in Falmouth on Cape Cod, where he often entertained colleagues and students. Catherine Szyman (MBA 1997), who had Salmon for her first-year Marketing class, remembered that at the end of her first year in the MBA program, he invited the class to his Cape house. “He was a great teacher and a warm and welcoming person,” Szyman said.

After leaving the active faculty in 1997, Salmon continued to guide student field study projects. “Contact with students and executives is a way to keep abreast of what’s going on and to hone your analytic tools — or at least sustain them,” he commented in an HBS interview.

In retirement, Salmon remained on the boards of Cumberland Farms and the MBL (formerly known as Marine Biological Laboratory) for a number of years. During the latter part of his life, he also continued to do several retailing-related research and course development projects at the School, including a study of the evolution and future of American department stores and a case book for use in graduate instruction and company education programs. In these activities, he often collaborated with younger faculty interested in retailing.

In addition, he worked on a study chronicling the plight of department stores from the end of World War II to the1990s. He was also involved with colleagues in the HBS Marketing Unit in examining the importance to consumers of selection in choosing between food stores. Finally, he worked on the development of a case focusing on the impact of technology on the buying process in a large mass-merchandising company.

A long-time resident of Lincoln, MA, before moving to Brookline, MA, four years ago, Salmon was active in Lincoln town affairs as a former member of the Lincoln Finance Committee and chairman of the Regional School District Committee. He also served as treasurer and a trustee of the DeCordova Museum.

His wife of sixty years, Marjorie (Swartz), died in May 2014. He is survived by their three daughters, Elizabeth Frank of Lexington, MA, Joan Salmon (Kaminsky) of Port Washington, NY, and Stephanie Shenton of Concord, MA; six grandchildren; and a partner, Marsha J. Goldberg.

A funeral service will be held at Temple Israel in Boston (477 Longwood Ave.) on Wednesday, March 11, at 10 a.m., followed by interment in the Lincoln Cemetery on Lexington Rd. in Lincoln.

After the burial service, a memorial observance will be held at his former residence in Brookline until 8 p.m. A memorial observance will also be held at that location on Thursday, March 12, from 2 to 8 p.m.

In lieu of flowers, donations in Prof. Salmon’s memory may be made to the Louis R. Caplan Research Fund, c/o Development Office, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, 330 Brookline Ave., Boston, MA 02215.


Jim Aisner