115 Years of Ralph Lane Polk Leadership

A man named Ralph Lane Polk was the leader at R. L. Polk & Co. for 115 years, through four generations.

RLP I, the Civil War veteran with the Federal Army, started the company in 1870 in Detroit, MI and built it into the largest printer of business and community directories in the United States. RLP I would ride the new cross-country railroads and stop in towns along the way. In 1923, while on a business trip to Minnesota selling his beloved directories, Polk I passed away.

Ralph Lane Polk II took over and continued the company’s growth. He had worked at the company since age 10, delivering directories, and joined full time in 1901. Under his leadership Polk expanded into branch offices in 40 cities, into automotive statistics and direct marketing. He was later enshrined in the Automotive Hall of Fame and the Direct Marketing Hall of Fame. RLP II passed away in 1949.

Ralph Lane Polk III joined the company in 1933. He became head of the directory division in 1942 and president of the company upon his father’s death. RLP III led the company’s international expansion into Canada, Australia and Europe. It was during his tenure that the company began the computer age at Polk. RLP III passed away in 1984.

RLP IV joined the company in 1961 as a summer trainee and joined full time after college graduation in 1963. Quoting an early Polk publication, “he was a low key leader with an eye for financial matters.” He held positions of treasurer, chief financial officer and became president in 1981. After his father’s death, he found himself the lone Polk at the company, but not for long.

Stephen R. Polk, 25, 17 years younger than his brother, was in a graduate biology program researching wildlife when he decided to learn more about the company and approached his brother about joining the company. He was hired and spent time learning in each Polk division.

Unfortunately, RLP IV died in a boating accident in 1984, leaving Stephen as the lone Polk family member at the company.

John M. O’Hara, the company’s general counsel, stepped up to serve as president upon RLP IV’s death, mentoring Stephen until he assumed the presidency in 1990.

SRP as chairman, president and CEO, guided Polk in its final years up to the purchase by IHS Markit in 2013. These were tumultuous times, during which he refocused the company on automotive data and purchased CARFAX, which significantly boosted the company’s value.

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