Ford's Napoleon: Ernie Breech rescued the empire
It worked, and the photo of dark-suited Breech standing in front of the Ford Styling Rotunda became one of Fortune's hallmark pages.
"I had the idea of that little powerhouse as Napoleon in front of his tomb in Paris. … I told him to put his hands on his hips, which he was willing to do - eager," Steiner wrote in a letter.
Ernest Robert Breech, "Ernie" to his peers, was 49 when he joined Ford Motor Co. in 1946, and he already had a formidable reputation. He was a favorite of Alfred P. Sloan and rose to become president of Bendix Aviation Corp., a General Motors affiliate.
When Henry Ford II's uncle, Ernest Kanzler, recommended him, Breech was managing GM's Bendix, Frigidaire, Delco Appliance and North American Aviation operations, according to historian Richard H. Stout. In his book Let 'em Shout "Hooray," Stout wrote: "Question existed as to whether Ford Motor Company needed Breech more than he needed Ford Motor Company. His career already pointed toward the president's office at General Motors."
Breech was reluctant enough that Henry Ford II had to beg for his help.
"Well, will you at least give me some advice?" Ford said, according to Ford biographer Walter Hayes. "Look things over. Tell me what you think. You've nothing to lose."
Breech joined Ford Motor as executive vice president on July 1, 1946, hooking up with an organization that was losing about $10 million a month. Cost controls under founder Henry Ford's regime consisted primarily of end-of-year balances. Everything was reaction; little was planned. One department guessed at its expenses by weighing the receipt piles.
The company had never made a profit forecast and had no way to plan either sales or costs for its products.
Breech, who saw Ford Motor rise to earn $500 million in annual profit, later recalled his task as "civilizing a monster."
Breech also inherited challenges to his authority. Henry Ford II had just hired a group of 10 Army Air Force officers who had worked together during World War II as a brain trust for aviation planning. First named the Quiz Kids because of their incessant questioning, they later became known as the Whiz Kids for their management abilities.
The group, which included future Ford presidents Robert S. McNamara and Arjay Miller, thought the responsibility for redesigning Ford was theirs.
Breech brought GM's autonomous management style to Ford's monolithic operations. He also brought Lewis Crusoe, then 50, his former assistant at Bendix. Crusoe had retired and was raising cattle when Breech called him into Ford, but his reputation as a sharp-tongued, precise and brilliant finance man lingered.
It was Crusoe who implemented cost accounting at Ford and who pushed the automaker to match GM's every offering, car by car. He rose to become general manager of Ford Division, then headed the car and truck divisions.
Breech had the power to shock executives out of their complacency. Henry II trusted Breech and would absent himself while Breech, loudly and profanely, gutted divisional plans or berated a top manager. Once the storm had passed, Breech again would become the affable leader of an orderly process.
But his results brought praise. It was Breech who rejected designs for Ford's first postwar car as too big, too heavy and too expensive. (The vehicle became the 1949 Mercury instead.) Breech committed the company to a two-year technology program that produced the 1949 Ford, one of the auto industry's great successes.
During its 17-month production run, more than 1.1 million were sold.
By Jan. 25, 1955, when Breech was elevated to chairman, Ford Motor Co. had a functional, efficient system that focused on profit centers and made the entire company manageable.
Ford profits had soared, and it had become a magnet for bright, young engineers and executives with M.B.A. degrees.
Seeds of tragedy
But Breech's accomplishments in bringing order out of chaos contained the seeds of tragedy. He insisted on holding all the reins in the company and did not welcome challengers. A gap developed between Breech loyalists and Henry II and his Whiz Kids managers.
Breech had relied heavily on Crusoe, but in 1956 Crusoe suffered a debilitating heart attack that ended his career. Ford had expanded its divisions, and, with the Edsel, was even trying to create a brand-new car line - and Breech had set the seal on the Edsel name, against Ford family wishes.
Bad economic times hit Ford. The Edsel became a synonym for disaster, and Breech foe McNamara saw that the time was ripe to push for a new power structure.
By 1960, Breech was "honorary" chairman of the board. Henry II tried to form a new, smaller empire for Breech by creating a separate finance committee, but Breech rejected the new structure. He stayed just six months.
He later headed Trans World Airlines.
Breech died in July 1978.
You can reach Tim Moran at email@example.com.