Former Ford CEO Red Poling is dead at 86Harold A. “Red” Poling, former chairman and chief executive of Ford Motor, died over the weekend in California. He was 86.
Poling, who retired in 1994, was instrumental in turning around Ford’s North American operations in the early 1980s when Japanese competitors were clobbering domestic carmakers. Poling focused on cutting costs and restoring quality, and enlisted the help of renowned quality guru W. Edwards Deming to reestablish Ford’s reputation with the American public.
“Red Poling was an extraordinary leader who had a profound impact on Ford Motor Company and everyone who worked with him,” Ford executive chairman William C. Ford Jr. said in a statement. “With a list of accomplishments that span 43 years, including leading the company through a remarkable turnaround during the 1980s and 1990s, Red was respected by all for his leadership, his passion for being the low-cost producer and his genuine affinity for people. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family.”
Harold A. Poling, 86, a Chairman of Ford, Dies
By BILL VLASIC
Published: May 15, 2012
Harold A. Poling, the son of an auto mechanic who helped guide the Ford Motor Company through the recession of the early 1990s as its chairman and chief executive, died on Saturday in Pacific Grove, Calif. He was 86.
His death was announced by Ford, where Mr. Poling worked for 43 years before his retirement in 1994.
Known as Red because of his auburn hair, Mr. Poling rose through the company’s ranks on the strength of his financial acumen and a low-key leadership style that brought stability during tough times.
He gained prominence in the 1980s as the head of Ford’s troubled North American operations, and later as the company’s president and chief operating officer, imposing financial discipline early in his tenure and presiding over plant closings and widespread job cuts. He was also credited with using Japanese production techniques to shave costs and improve quality.
In the midst of huge losses, Mr. Poling joined other senior Ford executives in backing a $3 billion program that produced the wildly popular Ford Taurus. “We bet the company,” Mr. Poling said in a Ford news release. “It was a tremendous gamble, but it has paid off handsomely.”
He was promoted to president of Ford in 1985 and became a vice chairman two years later. The company’s fortunes improved as well, with Ford reporting what was then an industry record of $5.3 billion in profits in 1988.
Mr. Poling was named Ford’s chairman and chief executive in 1990, succeeding Donald E. Peterson. He was 64 years old, but the company gave him an exemption to stay beyond its mandatory retirement age of 65. On his watch, the company introduced models that allowed it to emerge from the recession with a competitive lineup.
Through all the ups and downs of the industry and Ford’s management infighting, Mr. Poling was considered a steady, unflappable executive.
“He was not a table-pounding kind of guy, just very smart, very cordial and very professional,” said David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Mr. Cole recalled a dinner in the early 1990s attended by Mr. Poling and Roger B. Smith, then the chairman and chief executive of General Motors, Ford’s hometown rival. Mr. Smith dominated the conversation at the table, Mr. Cole recalled, while Mr. Poling hardly said a word. “So my wife turned to him and said, ‘Red, what do you do?’ And Red just smiled and said, ‘I’m the C.E.O. of Ford.’ ”
Harold Arthur Poling was born on Oct. 14, 1925, in Troy, Mich., the son of an auto mechanic and a nurse. He said that he learned the basics about cars from his father. “We’d grind valves, change piston rings and clutches, and do lots of other jobs,” he said. “It was serious work, but to me it was very interesting.”
His family moved to Virginia, where Mr. Poling attended high school. He joined the Navy at 17. After being discharged two years later, he went on to earn a bachelor of arts degree from Monmouth College in Illinois 1949 and a master’s degree in business administration from Indiana University in 1951.
He joined Ford in 1951 as a cost analyst in the company’s steel division, and had several financial posts before becoming a vice president of Ford of Europe in 1972. He became chairman of the European subsidiary, and in 1980 was named executive vice president of North American operations.
In 1986, he received a distinguished service citation from the Automotive Hall of Fame.
Mr. Poling is survived by his wife, Marian, whom he married in 1957; two daughters, Kathryn Poling and Pam Cruden; a son, Doug; and five grandchildren.