Marvin T. Runyon, past president of Nissan, U.S.A., chairman of the board of Tennessee Valley Authority, and postmaster general, was born in Ft. Worth, Texas, on September 16, 1924. He did not become a Tennessean until 1980, but in the last two decades of the century, Runyon became one of the most important Tennesseans in the century.
Runyon began his career at the Ford Motor Company as a factory line worker in 1943. After serving as an Air Force B-29 flight engineer in World War II, Runyon took advantage of the GI Bill to get a B.S. in Engineering Management from Texas A&M in 1948. He returned to Ford, becoming vice-president of Body and Assembly Operations in 1977. By 1980 he had become extremely frustrated at union rules and top management by accountants and not operations personnel.
In that year Runyon agreed to become president and chief executive officer of Nissan Motor Manufacturing Corporation, U.S.A., when that Japanese-owned automobile company agreed to locate, as Runyon had hoped for some time, somewhere in the southern United States. Three individuals may have transformed modern Tennessee manufacturing more than any others by their choice of Smyrna as the location of that Nissan plant: Runyon, Smyrna Mayor Sam Ridley, and Governor Lamar Alexander. The choice was influenced by Tennessee’s antiunion reputation and a location directly on the main line of the CSX Railroad from Nashville to Atlanta and also near I-24. Tennessee agreed to build an interstate connector and to train the employees extensively.
Runyon led the company to build the largest single building in use as an automobile assembly plant anywhere in the world. The company spent $63 million training its employees and adopted the latest robotic techniques and Japanese “just in time” assembly techniques, using over 2,000 parts supplied by outside companies. Originally many of these parts came from Japan, but eventually almost all were produced within one hundred miles of Smyrna. Runyon would become famous in Tennessee for adopting the Japanese idea that companies should be extensively involved in the community, supporting, for instance, symphonies and recreational parks.
In 1988, after his first wife’s death, Runyon accepted an appointment by President Ronald Reagan as the chairman of the board of the Tennessee Valley Authority. He found an agency that was badly dated in its operations and practically crippled by a failed attempt to develop nuclear power. Memphis and some other cities were threatening to buy their power elsewhere. Within a year, he had reduced the workforce by nearly one-third and economized operations so well that the TVA held its wholesale costs of electricity until 1997, moving it from a high-cost to a very low-cost power producer. Runyon’s solution to the nuclear power problem was to shut down the proposed Hartsville plant and to end any further plans for opening new plants. Not all of this was popular with the TVA workforce, but it was very popular with the general Tennessee population.
In 1992 Runyon was appointed postmaster general of the United States by President George Bush. Moving to Washington, D.C., Runyon applied his business background to streamlining the operations of the postal service, and by 1994 he had become the first postmaster general since Benjamin Franklin to run a surplus that allowed mail rates to remain constant. He remained as postmaster general until 1998.
In July 1999 officials at Middle Tennessee State University selected Runyon as the Russell Chair of Manufacturing Excellence. In 2000 he also accepted the position of chairman of Leadership Middle Tennessee, a program designed to foster better communication and cooperation between the metropolitan center of Nashville and the surrounding counties of the greater Nashville area.