Mr. James W. McLernon, an alumnus of the University at Buffalo School of Engineering (UB BS IE ’50), started his career in 1949 as an hourly worker in a Western New York Chevrolet engine plant. He is a valued and committed supporter of his alma mater. His innovative, dedicated and leadership in the automotive industry makes him an outstanding role model for UB students and our Western New York community.
A native of Kenmore, N.Y., Mr. McLernon, after returning from military service, started work on the automotive assembly line at a plant near his home while still a college student. Studying engineering at UB , he was a leader among his peers. He helped found the undergraduate engineering society; he was also an athlete and avid outdoors man, and helped organize the Sitzmarkers, the university’s ski club.
His leadership skills, his acute sense for production efficiency, his ability to motivate workers, and his practical knowledge of manufacturing requirements made him a highly valued part of General Motors Corporation (GMC). During his 27 years with the company, he moved from the assembly line to manufacturing management, where he directed the operations of a 32-plant network, employing approximately 110,000 salaried and hourly employees.
His first managerial position came upon graduation in 1950. He then rose from foreman to general superintendent of production by 1959. He was named assistant manager of manufacturing R &D in 1961 and from 1964 through 1967, he managed the Tonawanda forge and metal casting and Buffalo axle plants. In 1968, he was named GMC director of Manufacturing, Research, and Development, and the following year he was given charge over the entire Chevrolet Division, as general manufacturing manager. The 32 plants for which he was responsible assembled Chevrolet cars and trucks, and produced components for many other GMC vehicles.
His manufacturing know-how, engineering training and R & D experience were just what Volkswagen needed in the mid-’70s when VW wanted to develop its first American-built cars. After an international search, Volkswagen chose Mr. McLernon, by then a well-rounded executive with strong leadership abilities, as president of VW Manufacturing Corporation of America. The operation was the first major foreign car maker to build cars in the U.S. In 1978, VW named him chief executive officer of VW of America he was responsible for sales, marketing and manufacturing in the United States and Canada for VW, Porsche and Audi divisions.
Not only a “seasoned engineer and production wizard,” Mr. McLernon also had insight into the dramatic changes facing the auto industry. Changes in consumer needs and tastes, as well as shifts in the economics of automobile production, demanded changes in the processes of automobile manufacture and assembly. Volkswagen’s first project for the large North American market was the Rabbit model - an early leader of front-wheel-drive, four-cylinder - yet powerful - cars designed to the toughest engineering standards. Mr. McLernon’s challenge was to initiate just-in-time performance standards, as well as the rigorous traditions of the German company on the new parts-supply network in the U.S. and Canada. He accomplished this monumental task, bringing the $600 million Western Pennsylvania assembly and West Virginia stamping plants on-line in just 18 months.
His commitment to his alma mater is outstanding. In the ’70s, he established the J.W. McLernon Fund for Student Recruitment. The scholarship fund was founded to recruit outstanding high school seniors to study engineering at UB. Mr. McLernon made the gift hoping to enrich the academic stature of the School of Engineering, and to provide opportunities for excellence in future generations of engineers. Mr. McLernon has said that his “four years at UB were among the best of [his] life.” During that time, he met his wife, who was a student in the School of Nursing.
Mr. McLernon’s commitment to UB, and his outstanding reputation as a leader in the automotive industry evidence the value of learning, dedication, and contribution to society. He is a great innovator, a committed leader, and a believer in the promise of ideas; he is an inspiration to students in all fields who face the challenge of developing and utilizing new technologies and new methodologies for a changing world.
We are honored to make Mr. James W. McLernon, UB BS IE ’50 our first recipient of the Dean’s Award for Engineering Achievement.