Ford’s First Non-Ford CEO
It’s an old saw, and probably apocryphal, that ranking members of the Ford family often remind executives who run afoul of Henry Ford’s decedents whose name it is on the headquarters building.
Considering his reputation as a highly competent, button-down, conservative automotive executive, Philip Caldwell no doubt never had to be reminded of the name atop the Ford Motor Company headquarters. Caldwell became the first Ford CEO and chairman who was not a member of the Ford family, a kind of preternatural Alan Mulally. Caldwell died July 10 at his home in New Canaan, Connecticut.
Born in the farming town of Bourneville, Ohio, on January 27, 1920, Caldwell served as chief executive officer from October 1979 and as chairman from March 1980, to his retirement at age 65, in February 1985, months before the groundbreaking Ford Taurus sedan went on sale.
In addition to the Taurus, Caldwell led the company during the launch of the first North American Escort and the 1984 Thunderbird and Mercury Cougar. He is credited with turning Ford’s financial fortunes in the right direction. Ford posted a then-record $1.5 billion loss in 1980, Caldwell’s first full year as CEO, and made a profit of $2.9 billion in 1984, says his obituary in The New York Times.
Caldwell was a history buff, and was never considered a car guy. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served as a lieutenant in the Pacific during World War II, and after the war was a Navy civilian executive in Washington, D.C. Caldwell joined Ford in 1953, seven years after Ford hired ten U.S. Army Air Force veterans to be the “Whiz Kids” executives tasked with turning the company around. Ford issued its first public stock in 1956.
Caldwell was appointed Truck Operations general manager in 1968, made president of Philco-Ford in 1970, and was elected Ford of Europe’s chairman of the board and CEO in 1972.
In 1977, Caldwell was elected Ford Motor Company’s vice chairman just as Chairman and CEO Henry Ford II, grandson of the company’s founder, famously fired company president Lee Iacocca, telling him, “I don’t like you, and I never did.”
Iacocca, the engineer credited with the 1965 Mustang and 1971 Pinto, went on to become Chrysler’s CEO, chairman and television commercial spokesman/car salesman, retiring in 1992.
Caldwell didn’t smoke or drink or appear in public in anything but a conservative suit and necktie, at a time when executives like Iacocca and John DeLorean were injecting as much Hollywood flavor as Detroit could take. Caldwell became a senior manager of Shearson Lehman Brothers after his retirement from Ford.
“Philip Caldwell had a remarkable impact at Ford Motor Company over a span of more than 30 years,” executive chairman Bill Ford said in a brief statement. “His dedication and relentless passion for quality always will be hallmarks of his legacy at Ford.”