Michigan Engineer Profile - James Mellor
James Mellor, BSE MSE EE ’52 ’54
Chairman of the Board
Engineering gave me the tools to think through complex problems and issues that are translatable to business.
EVEN AS A YOUNG boy growing up in Northwest Detroit, James Mellor (BSE EE ’52, MSE ’54) always wanted to be an electrical engineer. And true to his boyhood ambition, he has devoted more than 50 years to the profession and excelled as both an engineer and a business executive.
During high school, he designed and built a radio and was instantly hooked on all things electrical. Today, he's chairman of the board at USEC, a global energy company that supplies enriched uranium fuel for commercial nuclear power plants.
Mellor’s devotion extends well beyond his career. He’s a consummate family man and credits his wife Suzanne with much of his success in business and in life. “I found a partner who was totally supportive in whichever direction I wanted to take in my career,” he said, “even though each transition translated into uprooting and moving the family.”
The success of his three children and nine grandchildren is a source of tremendous pride for Mellor. To each of them he offers subtle, supportive advice, taking cues from his first mentor — his father. “I’ve seen too many successful business people who were total failures with their family,” he said. “I decided early on that this wasn’t going to happen to me.”
After receiving his master’s degree, Mellor joined Hughes Aircraft Company, then moved to an 18-year career with Litton Industries, where he held a variety of engineering and management positions, including executive vice president in charge of the Defense and Space Group. “Engineering gave me the tools to think through complex problems and issues that are translatable to business,” he said.
While at Hughes and Litton, he received a number of patents related to digital computing technology. And throughout his career he shared his experience, knowledge and expertise, writing articles for publications around the world. “It was exciting to see them in translation,” he said, “even if I couldn’t read them.”
Mellor moved from Litton to AM International, Inc., and then General Dynamics, where, as an executive vice president, he applied a hands-on approach, something he’d learned from A.D. Moore, a favorite Michigan Engineering professor who was renowned for his expertise in electrostatics as well as his contributions to students’ lives.
Mellor’s work at General Dynamics put him in the cockpits of advanced fighter aircraft, the control rooms of world-class nuclear submarines and the turrets of M-1 main battle tanks. He played a significant role in restructuring the company’s management of its aerospace defense business — a change so significant that many other aerospace companies adopted the same philosophy and practices. “It was necessary to run the business like a business,” he said, “with the shareholders being the primary beneficiaries.”
Two of the keys to Mellor’s success are his communications and exceptional people skills. A very senior Washington official underscored that fact, saying “Jim Mellor is one of the only persons I know who has the rare ability to communicate effectively and easily with both kings and commoners, and to do so in a manner in which both were equally inspired and impressed.”
In 1997, after 16 years at General Dynamics, Mellor retired as chairman and chief executive officer. He joined USEC shortly after. “I don't think I ever really retired in the traditional sense,” he said. “I sat on a number of boards and was definitely kept busy.” Recently, in fact, he found himself in the rare and honorable position of having been chairman of three different New York Stock Exchange companies.
Despite a busy work schedule, Mellor and Suzanne surround themselves with family as often as possible at their Laguna Beach, California, home. “It’s a natural gathering spot for our children and grandchildren,” he said. “Our kids are still very close.”
Somehow in his busy schedule, he managed to give 10 years of service to the College’s National Advisory Committee. He devours biographies, usually several at once. And he works in enough travel so that he has his own stories to tell — about a recent Alaskan salmon-fishing trip, a Hawaiian vacation and an excursion to Sedona, Arizona, for the annual “Mellor dad-daughter getaway.” He also treats his son and sons-in-law to a yearly fishing or golf trip and, in the coming year, he plans to treat himself to a vacation in India — the one country he’s always wished to see.
Mellor’s life and engineering career have, quite literally, taken him around the world and allowed him to meet and do business with presidents, prime ministers and kings. But despite his penchant for travel, his favorite destination has always been home.
- Michigan Engineer (College of Engineering)