The A.C. Nielsen Make It Better Legacy

Life-long Winnetkan Arthur C. Nielsen, Jr. attributes the Make It Better values of hard-work, ingenuity, family and community for his personal and business success.

He learned them from his father, the founder of The Nielsen Company.

Sitting in the library next to the fireplace, in the home in which he and his wife, Patty, raised 3 children, Nielsen explains, “My father had the idea of building a system to determine how many people listen to the radio. He worked on the problem for 19 years. Every year he lost money.

“One time I asked Pop, ‘When are you going to quit this thing?’ I’ll never forget his response. ‘I’ll quit when I run out of ideas to make it better.”

Fortunately, his father’s ingenuity and hard work not only paid off, it rubbed off. Nielsen inherited the company’s management from his father and grew it into a consumer information powerhouse located in more than 100 countries.

Nielsen is quick to point out though that he most appreciates the more personal values he inherited from his father—honesty, fairness, love of a strong family and community.

With fond recollection, Nielsen tells stories illustrating a shared love of sports, and lessons learned from them. “We were playing in a father-son tennis tournament, and the referee called our opponent’s set-winning shot out. But, my dad called it in, explaining ‘It’s better to be right than to win.’ I never forgot that.”

Nielsen played varsity tennis and basketball at New Trier High School, from which he graduated in 1937. He befriended the only black student, Lester Brownlee, who was also on the basketball team. That friendship paid off in more ways than one.

“We were playing Evanston, our deadly rival, and they had a giant of a player who was picking on me. Lester put that player on his shoulders, marched him across the court and dropped him in the dumpster,” he says.

Nielsen always believed in racial and gender equality; he helped where he could. As president of the powerful Economic Club Of Chicago, Nielsen lobbied for and won admission to the club for blacks, despite substantial opposition.

“I thought they wouldn’t re-elect me because of this, but they did. So next, I said we should take in women,” he recalls. That fight was even harder. Nielsen cast the deciding vote and nominated their first female member, Eppie Lederer—better known as the columnist Ann Landers.

Nielsen likes strong women. His wife, Patty, was known for her own strong sense of fairness and liberal political views. He explains, “If a man has a good wife, he is very fortunate.” Grinning, he adds, “I had a darn good one.”

The Nielsen family sold the business, but the rest of the founder’s inheritance is still in place—strong values, strong family and strong community. His son, Arthur C. Nielsen, III, M.D., a successful psychiatrist who specializes in marriage, lives on the same block as his father, with his wife and three daughters. Furthermore, his alma mater, New Trier High School, will induct him into the Alumni Hall Of Honor on March 22, proof that ingenuity, hard work, fairness and love of family and community will always be values that make it better—in other words, values to celebrate.

Editor’s note:

Make It Better was saddened to hear of Arthur Nielsen’s passing on October 3, 2011. What follows is his obituary:

Arthur C. Nielsen Jr. applied the talents that made him a leader in the world of business to the benefit of his community and country.  Under Nielsen’s guidance, the company his father founded, the A.C. Nielsen Company, had grown at the time of his retirement at age 65 from a small enterprise to world leadership in five businesses with 22,000 employees and operations in 25 countries.  One of the first people to grasp the commercial potential of the computer, Nielsen had the Company invest in the first general-purpose computer, the UNIVAC, and leadership in the use of computers was one of the keys to the Company’s success.  Nielsen’s acumen was recognized by other business leaders, who invited him to serve on the Boards of over twenty major corporations, including Walgreens, Motorola and the Harris Bank.

Nielsen’s contributions to his community are equally impressive. He was the lead donor of the Arthur C. Nielsen Jr. Campus of the North Shore Senior Center in Northbrook, which serves 35,000 seniors in 23 suburbs.  Nielsen is co-founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Broadcast Communications Museum in Chicago, which is home to America’s only Radio Hall of Fame.

Nielsen has had leadership roles in dozens of other educational, medical, business and philanthropic organizations, including the Gertrude B. Nielsen Child Care and Learning Center in Northbrook, the A.C. Nielsen Center for Marketing Research at the University of Wisconsin, the Arthur C. Nielsen Jr. Research Professorship of Parkinson’s Disease and Movement at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and the Nielsen USTA Pro Tennis Championship, which is held in Winnetka every summer at the A.C. Nielsen Tennis Center.

Nielsen has a long record of government service.  During World War II, he served four years in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, attaining the rank of Major and earning the Legion of Merit Award.  He has been Chairman of the U.S. Census Bureau Advisory Committee, a Commissioner of the U.S. Information Agency, and has served on many Presidential Advisory Committees and represented the United States on international missions to France, Italy, Israel, Japan and India.  To acknowledge his work in India, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi honored him with an award at a White House ceremony.

Nielsen played competitive tennis from his days as Co-Captain of the State Champion New Trier Tennis Team until his mid-eighties, winning four national championships and playing for the United States in International Senior Tennis Competitions.

Nielsen married Patricia McKnew (1922-2005) in 1943 and is survived by their three children, Dr. Arthur C. Nielsen III (wife Sheila, daughters Jennifer, Kathryn, and Cynthia) John Christopher Nielsen (wife Laurie, daughters Emily and Genevieve) and Elizabeth Cocciarelli (husband Maurizio, sons John and Richard). He is also survived by his brother Philip and sisters Margaret Stiegele and the Reverend Dr. Barbara Nielsen.