Harold ‘Red’ Poling, Ford’s Cost-Cutter CEO, Dies at 86

Source: Ford/Wieck via Bloomberg

Harold "Red" Poling, who served as chairman and chief executive officer of Ford Motor Co. from March 1990 to January 1994, has died. Close

Harold "Red" Poling, who served as chairman and chief executive officer of Ford Motor... Read More

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Source: Ford/Wieck via Bloomberg

Harold "Red" Poling, who served as chairman and chief executive officer of Ford Motor Co. from March 1990 to January 1994, has died.

Harold A. “Red” Poling, former Ford Motor Co. (F) chairman and chief executive officer who helped lead the automaker through two recessions, has died. He was 86.

He died May 12 in Pacific Grove, California, the Dearborn, Michigan-based company, said yesterday in an e-mail. The cause of death wasn’t known.

As chairman and CEO from 1990 to 1994, Poling led the company through a deep recession, when Ford’s sales in North America and Europe plunged and losses totaled $9.64 billion in 1991 and 1992. By the time he retired, Ford controlled 25.3 percent of the U.S. auto market, up from 21 percent in 1983. It had net income of $2.53 billion in 1993, his final full year.

As leader of Ford’s North American auto operations during an earlier financial crisis, Poling cut $2.5 billion in fixed costs in 1980-1981 through plant closings and the elimination of middle management jobs, AutoWeek reported.

“Those days are indelibly seared in my mind,” Poling told the New York Times in 1990, when he became CEO. “I run scared because I don’t ever want that to happen again.”

During those fraught years he also approved spending $3 billion to engineer an aerodynamic sedan named Taurus that became the top-selling car in the U.S.

‘Tremendous Gamble’

“We bet the company,” Poling said in a 1993 corporate biography. “It was a tremendous gamble, but it has paid off handsomely.” The automaker introduced the Taurus in 1985 as a 1986 model.

Automotive Industries magazine named Poling Man of the Year for 1988.

“Red Poling was an extraordinary leader who had a profound impact on Ford,” Bill Ford, the automaker’s executive chairman and great-grandson of its founder, 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.”

Harold Arthur Poling was born on Oct. 14, 1925, in Troy, Michigan, and grew up in Fairfax, Virginia, according to Ford. Poling enlisted in the U.S. Navy at 17, two weeks after graduating from Fairfax High School. After more than two years in Naval aviation, he enrolled in Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1949. He received a master’s in business administration in 1951 from Indiana University.

European Tour

In 1950, Poling worked at Ford on a summer internship. He started full-time at Ford in 1951 as a cost analyst in the office of the Steel Division’s controller, rising to assistant controller of the Transmission and Chassis Division in 1964 and, in 1968, controller of the Product Development Group. He was promoted to vice president of finance for Ford’s European unit in 1972.

Based in the U.K., he rose to president of Ford of Europe in 1975 and to chairman about two years later.

He returned to the U.S. in 1979 to become executive vice president and was elected a director. He took the helm of North American auto operations in 1980, when car sales were running below capacity, forcing the painful cuts in personnel and plants.

He became president and chief operating officer in 1985, vice chairman in 1987. In March 1990, he succeeded Donald E. Petersen as chairman.

Serious Golfer

Describing his strengths, he told the Chicago Tribune: “I’ve had the opportunity to run the two major auto operations at Ford -- European and North America. I believe that’s unique. I’m consistent, dependable and predictable, three of the most important characteristics top management can have, so that you don’t have an organization trying to outguess you and waste time. They know what to expect from me.”

Poling was an avid golfer, with an 8 handicap, who was named “one of America’s top company executive golfers” by Fortune magazine. He was a serious golfer who liked to say he didn’t play “customer golf,” according to Ford.

With his wife, the former Marian Lee, Poling had two children, Kathryn and Douglas. He had a third child from a previous marriage, Pam Cruden, according to Ford.

Douglas Poling was one of the former American International Group executives whose bonus payments in 2009, a year after the company was bailed out by the U.S., drew protests, according to the New York Times. The company said he returned his bonus, which was the largest at $6.4 million.

To contact the reporters on this story: Keith Naughton in Southfield, Michigan, at knaughton3@bloomberg.net; Laurence Arnold in Washington at larnold4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jamie Butters at jbutters@bloomberg.net

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