19 Mar 2015

Walter Salmon Remembered

Retailing and marketing expert, beloved teacher and advisor

Walter J. Salmon

Walter J. Salmon
Photo: Harvard Business School

When he died in March at the age of 84, Walter J. Salmon left behind a legacy that included seven books, several hundred case studies, and thousands of former students taught over the course of a 41-year career. Born in New York City in 1930, Salmon first became interested in marketing and retailing while in college, working part-time at Bloomingdale’s and then in a New York buying office for a large group of department stores. After earning an MBA (1954) and DBA (1960) at HBS, he rose to full professor in only seven years.

A regular presence on campus even after his retirement, Salmon was highly regarded for his tough but humorous approach in the classroom and an unfailing generosity in advising and supporting students. A collection of remembrances follows; add your own in the comments section below.


I read with great sorrow of the passing of Professor Salmon. More than any other teacher, he epitomized the magic of the case method and the creativity of teaching it. His classes were memorable not only because he orchestrated such lively discussions but also because he instilled a basic fear of the consequences of not being prepared. Often my classmates and I would consider not going to class if we had somehow not read the case for fear of embarrassing ourselves. This was truer for Walt’s marketing class than for any others.

But more than the tremendous respect he generated as a teacher were his kindness and generosity. I can recall two instances when he went out of his way to help me in my career. Toward the end of my first year at the school, I had a summer job offer which was cancelled about a month before the summer break would occur because of some changes at the employer. Faced with the prospect of not having a job, I approached him, and he picked up the telephone and called a former student at General Foods who agreed to hire me for the summer. That resulted in my eventually working there full-time, and it launched my marketing career.

The other time was when I was working in Boston and due to a reorganization at my new employer, I found myself “between jobs.” I happened to meet Walt by accident one evening walking on the street where I lived. We exchanged greetings and chatted for only a few minutes. I told him I was temporarily out of work and looking for opportunities. About a week later I received a request from the CEO of a major company asking for consulting help from me on the basis of Walt’s recommendation.

He will be missed greatly both as a major influencer of his many students as a teacher and, more importantly, because of his kindness and generosity as a human being.
Richard Evans (MBA 1967)

You might say Walt saved my career. Much in ego-building demand, I accelerated out of the Harvard Economics PhD program, where I had loaded my brain with monetary policy, Keynes versus Friedman, mathematical macro-modeling and lots of other stuff the business world of 1965 was (NOT) waiting for, back into sole stewardship of a brand new 2nd year MBA course in Channels of Distribution at HBS, heavily over-subscribed (DANGER, DANGER) while consulting for Coca Cola and finishing my PhD thesis on the side. It should perhaps be no surprise that I was a colossal, distracted flop as a teacher and that Professor Milt Brown, head of marketing, ordered me back to the equivalent of boot camp—teaching first year marketing—led by Professor Walt Salmon. Brown explained that “Walt will teach you some marketing,” and so he did, although it seemed rather heavily loaded toward deodorant packaged goods marketing, what we collective teaching novices (Professors Cunningham, Cox, Heskett et al) termed the “armpit” portion of the first year marketing course. While we were also taught the mantra that “wisdom can't be told” and that we should never offer to MBA students the case solution of our own, Walt ignored this, and as Milt again observed, if the class (in case discussion) did not arrive at the right answer (as Walt judged it to be) then he would beat it out of their lower orifice physically. Nobody could ever accuse of Walt being wishy-washy in the classroom. I learned a lot from this guy, and he shall be missed by the marketing world.
Ralph Sultan (MBA 1960)

I was a student of Professor Salmon’s in 1962 and 1963, an experience that was transformational for me and for my family business. In those years, as part of the course, we had to analyze and write about a retail business. I chose our family business, Universal Food Systems. Little did I know at the time that within the year I would become CEO of that company when I was just 25 years old.

As a result of the work in Professor Salmon’s class, I had, with his help, plotted the transformation of a small, regional, highly-diversified food service company into what became a highly-focused Dunkin Donuts.

I will always be grateful to Professor Salmon for his training and wisdom in those HBS years and in the time and counsel he provided me in subsequent years. He was truly a gifted teacher and a wise and kind counselor. He will be missed.
Bob Rosenberg (MBA 1963)

As one the few HBS students coming out of the department store business, I was drawn to Walt for his knowledge, common sense approach to business issues, and wonderful sense of humor. He was E-section’s marketing professor and a dynamic leader in our case study discussions.

Professor Salmon always had a bunch of pencils on his desk (a la David Letterman) and in our final class we presented him with a wad of about 100 of them. For once, he was speechless.

Ten years after our graduation, he came to Vermont to advise a small, struggling company that I was involved with; that company is still in business today.

Thanks, Walt, for your passion and commitment.
Allan N. Mackey (MBA 1970)

I was in Professor Salmon’s Marketing class my second year. We were discussing a case where the company had a serious problem displaying enough product in the display room. I raised my hand and said, “Hang it from the ceiling!” The class found that remark funny and not much else, but to his everlasting credit, Professor Salmon replied, “That is creative and inspiring!” He had very good tolerance for all kinds of class participation so we always had a lively class. I subsequently developed a great career as a marketing professor. Thank you, Professor Salmon, for a wonderful experience.
Jose M. Faustino (MBA 1963)

Professor Walter Salmon was, perhaps, the member of the HBS faculty who was most memorable to me. My wife, who visited one of his first year Marketing classes, also remembers him well. On that particular day, the case involved the marketing of cosmetics. One of his insightful comments was, “When you sell cosmetics, you are really selling “hope.” That thought has stuck with both of us, even to this day.

I’m sure most of his students remember well his penchant for carrying to class each day a handful of pencils, wrapped in elastics. On the last day of our course, our section gave him some “going away” gifts, one of which was a fine selection of elastic-wrapped writing implements. I don’t believe that any other of our first year professors received a similar treatment from our section. That show of affection indicated that many of my section mates felt as I did about the impact he had on our thinking about the subject of marketing.

You will be missed, Professor Salmon.
Anthony Marolda (MBA 1970)

I can’t believe Dr. Salmon was 84…only six years older than me. It certainly seemed like a much greater age difference back in 1962–1963 when I had the pleasure of taking his course. I just remember a very personable and easygoing (the Yiddish word “mensch” fits well) person who was a knowledgeable and excellent teacher. He is one of those HBS professors of whom I still have fond memories.
Robert Willig (MBA 1963)

Walter Salmon was the kindest man on the faculty when I was there. He is my fondest memory of the school.
Charles E. Smith (MBA 1961)

Marketing was not my chosen field or anything I expected to pursue, but taking Professor Salmon’s marketing class was probably the most important thing I did at HBS since it allowed me to get to know such an exceptional person. As I was entering my last exam, I ran into Walt, who asked me what I planned to do after graduation. I had a half-baked idea about moving with my two young children to another area and starting my post-HBS career while my husband looked for a job in the area. I added that it would all be so easy if I could look into the future and KNOW. He, of course, needed no magic foresight. Took one look at me and said “I can tell you right now this is the wrong thing for you.” I’m not sure how I made it through the last exam, having realized that I needed to start my job search all over again. I called him to tell him my decision, and he said to come over so that we could discuss what I did want to do.

He coached me through my new job search and my early years working for an investment management firm in Boston. He then served as the Chairman of the Board of the investment management company I started in Boston nine years later.

Professor Salmon constantly amazed me with his ability to ask the piercing question which not only made the issue crystal clear but also showed the right path to take. All this he did in a very natural and unassuming way, never making one feel that she had somehow missed the obvious but gently leading into a depth of understanding that no amount of lecturing could have accomplished. I still feel I owe him a huge debt of gratitude that I can never hope to repay, except perhaps by trying to accomplish the high expectations he had for me.
Sandra Keys (MBA 1981)

My roommate at HBS, Peter Schwartz (now deceased), was one of Professor Salmon’s first students and devotees. Peter was one of the few in our class who had an interest in food marketing, and spoke often of his conversations with Salmon.

At that time, grocers were offering generic labels on their lower cost items: yellow bags with brown block letters identifying the contents only as coffee, detergent, sugar, etc. But in Salmon’s class, Peter said, they developed the concept that the person who “owned” the final purchaser actually could control the supply process all the way up the line, by controlling the shelf space. From that evolved the concept of private labeling, and Peter formed a company, Daymon & Associates, to help stores implement it—including grocers, drug stores, and discount stores like Costco.

Peter asked me (a banker) what I thought of supermarkets accepting credit cards for groceries. I said that the grocery margins (~1%) wouldn’t support the discounts on card purchases, and that consumers probably shouldn't be buying food to be consumed immediately, but have 30-plus days to pay for it. He just smiled.
Ian Arnof (MBA 1963)

My wife, Karen, and I had the pleasure of taking a Danube River Journey on The Royal Crown with Professor Salmon and his wife Marjorie in September 2012. It was an HAA Alumni Education program with Harvard, Yale, and other groups.

This trip was especially memorable because Walter was escorting his wife, Marjorie, who was in a wheelchair. Walter personally pushed the chair on and off the boat at every one of our many stops along the River and every guided land tour. They were inseparable.

We had many enjoyable evenings talking. As an HBS student in 1958–1960 I was never able to spend so much time with a “legend” and get to know him on a personal level, so our time together on the cruise felt especially valuable.
Allan J. Tomlinson, Jr. (MBA 1960)

Walter Salmon taught an MBA class for the very first time when Professor Malcolm McNair invited him to do so, despite Walter not having yet been appointed assistant professor…at least that is the way I remember my attendance that day in the second-year elective course, Retailing. I was struck even then by Walter’s extraordinary teaching skill, but more so his wisdom, warmth, student-centeredness, empathy, and generosity of spirit. From that day until his passing more than 50 years later, I never lost touch with Walter and we remained good friends and later colleagues on the HBS faculty. Walter was too modest to have self-described himself as a mentor, but he was that, for sure, because he set the example for me in all ways humane, wise and generous. He also played an important role in introducing my consulting firm to corporations on whose boards he sat which, while it was greatly appreciated at the time, pales in comparison to the impact he had on my personal development.
Carl Sloane (MBA 1960)
HBS Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor Business Administration, Emeritus

Walter Salmon was one of my favorite professors. I was in the third class that admitted women, and one of three in Section B. One day, not far into the first semester, all three of our professors cold-called on me to open the class. (All three on the same day? Wonder how that happened?!). Our study group sat together in the back; and, when Professor Salmon called on me, notes suddenly started finding their way onto my place. I took a look at them for a quick minute, and then made the decision to not try and bluff my way through and waste everyone’s time, but rather to say out loud that I wasn’t prepared but certainly would be tomorrow. There was an audible collective gasp. Then Professor Salmon moved on. The next day, I came to class not knowing what to expect, and Professor Salmon called on me to open. He then engaged me for 40 minutes before saying “Let’s give the others a chance for a few minutes.” Needless to say, the interchange was quite a workout—and I actually found it to be stimulating and fun! It kind of launched my verbal career at the School. I never forgot Walt’s generosity and energy in allowing me to both redeem myself and show what I could do.

I’m so very sorry to hear that Walt is no longer with us. He still is such a lively presence in my memory.
Mary C. Falvey (MBA 1967)

Walter Salmon was beyond doubt my favorite HBS professor. He greatly influenced my decision to focus on marketing. We have lost a great man.
Mike Herb (MBA 1963)

I fondly remember a second year field project with Professor Salmon as advisor. It was Hartmann Luggage, and my teammates were good friends: Kim Reynolds, Arlin Green, Mike Simchik, and John Middleton. None of us knew anything about retailing or luxury brands. Walt guided us with a blend of wisdom and humor, like an academic Woody Allen. And he loved to write in a hammer-like fashion on that blackboard. Might be the most fun we had of any work we did at HBS.

Walt had a personal connection to the owner of Hartmann Luggage, Ira Katz, and made sure Ira passed on his retailing secrets to us. The most important was the beautifully wrapped gift Ira gave us after we presented our recommendations to him: a Hartmann luggage tag for each of us. This was to induce us to each buy a piece of expensive luggage so we had somewhere to attach the tag—I guess you call that marketing.
Gary Rodkin (MBA 1979)

To read Professor Salmon’s full obituary, go to http://www.hbs.edu/news/releases/Pages/walter-salmon-obituary.aspx


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