Donaldson Brown, director of General Motors Corporation and a member of its Finance Committee, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, February 1, 1885, the son of J. Willcox and Ellen Turner Macfarland Brown. He was the first person to hold the title of vice chairman for General Motors.
He graduated from Virginia Polytechnic Institute with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1902. He completed a postgraduate course at Cornell University in 1903 by passing the senior electrical engineering course examination.
On completion of his college education, he sold electrical machinery for a General Electric interest. He was a salesman of commercial explosives for E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company for four years, starting in 1909.
In 1912, he was called into the du Pont home office at Wilmington, Delaware for special analytical work for the general manager. Two years later he was transferred to the treasurer's office and soon after elected assistant treasurer. In the spring of 1918, he became treasurer and in October the same year was named a member of the Board of Directors and of the Executive Committee.
Brown became vice president of General Motors in charge of finance and a member of the Board of Directors and of the Finance Committee on January 1, 1921, simultaneously resigning his posts as du Pont treasurer and Executive Committee member. In 1929, he was named chairman of the GM Finance Committee and on May 3, 1937, became vice chairman of the board and a member of the Policy Committee, created to supersede the Finance and Executive Committees as central governing group. He was a member of GM's Administration Committee until the end of World War II.
From the time of his joining General Motors in 1921, Brown was concerned primarily with coordinated financial control, dealing with production schedules, inventory control, dealer and employee relations and government relations. He was influential in policies of decentralized operations and coordinated control. He held it was necessary to retain flexibility of administrative action in various GM units through decentralization and at the same time to keep broad policy conformance with a central authority.
Brown, on a basis of 20 years General Motors experience, summarized his policy views before the Conference Board in New York in 1943, saying in part: "It may be said that industrial management represents a continuing and progressive process of education, in which teacher and student each learns from the other. If this attribute is removed there will be the loss of industrial efficiency, the devastating effect thereby to our whole economy, and the sacrifice of potential opportunities to millions of people engaged in industrial pursuit. This educational process might be described as a system of two-way flow in managerial human relations. This two-way flow has proved itself as the only effective way by which suitable consideration of facts can be brought to bear on policy formulation, and at the same time assure common understanding of purpose in the course of required adherence to determined policy. The downward flow consists of authority stemming from a combination of responsibility for administration of established policy and for the exercise of personal judgment in the existing situation. The upward flow consists of those questions, facts and opinions arising out of actual experience and allowed to exert proper pressure on policy formation."
While Brown served as an active General Motors executive from 1921 until his retirement on June 3, 1946, he continued as a director and member of the Finance Committee of du Pont. After his retirement, he continued to serve as a director of General Motors and a member of its Financial Policy Committee until November 27, 1959.