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In 1969 Bill Thomas decided to retire and liquidate his assets, including JBL. The company was sold to the Jervis Corporation (precursor to Harman International) whose President, Sydney Harman, was himself a notable pioneer in consumer audio, having founded the highly successful Harman Kardon Company in partnership with engineer Bernard Kardon. Following the acquisition, Harman instituted more modern costing and accounting systems and placed the Executive Vice President of Jervis, Sanford Berlin, in charge of JBL as temporary chief executive. Berlin had a full portfolio of responsibilities back at corporate headquarters in New York and had no intention of relocating to the West coast. He soon came to realize that there really was no one immediately available to head the reorganized company. During the following months and into the first half of 1969, Wolf had appeared at JBL a number of times to present proposed new product designs and to take part in product planning discussions where Berlin was present. At length, over a business dinner, Berlin asked Wolf whether he would consider joining the company as its new president.

In recalling this extraordinary suggestion, Wolf has said that he doesn't really know why he was asked, but speculates that "the Harman [Jervis] management could easily have found a qualified MBA who would virtually guarantee an orderly, well-supervised manufacturing and marketing operation. However, it is doubtful that such a person would have the training or ability to understand the highly subjective elements underlying JBL's reputation and powerful image something that had been carefully built by Bill Thomas over the years and an effort in which I had become a central contributor. Erosion of this vital, hard-won position in the marketplace could very well have proved catastrophic It may have seemed the better bet to engage one of the architects of the public image and hope that he could learn enough about business methods and administration to be fully effective than to follow conventional wisdom. Appointing a business person in this context probably would result in a loss of some of the non-objective and hard-to-quantify values that were so central to JBL's success. In addition, by that time I had learned a considerable amount about the company's manufacturing processes, marketing approach, and distribution."

It was not an easy decision for Wolf to make. For one thing, it would require that he give up his industrial design office in Berkeley and also deal with the question of his ongoing responsibility to his other clients. Another difficult consideration was the fact that in Berkeley he was completely independent, not having worked for others for the preceding twelve years, and the change to JBL would mean once again being an employee. There was also the prospect of uprooting his family to relocate in Los Angeles where they knew no one and where their children would have to find new friends.

While taking a family holiday in California's high sierra mountains above Lake Tahoe, Wolf thought about it and reasoned that he had already explored the possibilities of industrial design to the point where further growth would be difficult, and that failure to accept the Harman offer would deny him the opportunity to expand his experience into new areas in a situation that still allowed him the exercise of design and marketing judgment. Accordingly, he proceeded to negotiate the terms of his employment and formally joined JBL in the fall of 1969.

During the remaining months of the year, Wolf commuted between Berkeley and Los Angeles, spending his weekends with his family and additional time as needed with his industrial design colleagues. An arrangement was worked out with Douglas Warner, Wolf's assistant, to acquire the practice. After some visits by his wife to Los Angeles to find a suitable residence, the family moved to their new home in January, 1970.

2000 Arnold Wolf

 

 
 

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