Q&A: Long ago, on Long Island, Caldwell glimpsed his future
As a college student on spring break, Caldwell went to Long Island to observe preparations for the World’s Fair. Noticing a commotion, Caldwell recalls, he asked a workman what was happening and was told that Henry Ford was inspecting his company’s exhibit. Caldwell joined the crowd.
Today he cherishes a photograph of the event with himself in the background — and Henry, Edsel and Henry Ford II in the foreground. It was the only time he saw the legendary founder of the company he would one day lead.
Caldwell, 83, was interviewed by Dave Guilford.
What makes Ford Motor Co. special?
Its great history and its deep roots as a family business enterprise with this absolute commitment to providing quality transportation for a broad segment of the population. It started with that. That was the focus of Henry Ford’s original proposition: personal mobility for the masses. Having been born and reared on a farm, with all the heavy work, I think, he had a special feeling for that.
What was the most memorable event at Ford in which you played a part?
The thing that I have my heart in was the Taurus. The Taurus was so important to turn around the company. That came at a very tough time the 1980s.
When I took over in 1979 from Henry II, my first day in the office we happened to ride down in the elevator together from the 12th floor offices to the garage. Henry said to me, “I’m really sorry to leave you with all this mess.” What he was talking about was the economic climate had turned cold, sales were way down and we weren’t very well prepared for the modernity that was required. That’s when the Taurus was conceived.
My first year in office, I lost $1.8 billion. In my second year, I lost $1.3 billion. My third year, things were getting a little tiresome, but I lost another $800 million. That’s the backdrop of the Taurus. The next couple of years we got it all back and then some.
What would you like to be remembered for that people don’t associate with you?
We had very, very tough times in the early ’80s because we just had to reduce the work force. We started meeting with the union people. Henry came in the office one day and said, “We don’t seem to talk to them. Why don’t we just hold meetings?”
We began holding meetings quarterly and we showed them the same information at the same time that we showed it to the board. And there was never any violation of security or misuse of that information. They saw exactly what the management saw and the board saw. Why not? We were all in the same boat together, for heaven’s sake.
How did Henry Ford II tell you that you would be the first nonfamily chairman and CEO of the company?
When I was running Europe, we used to have quarterly meetings and he would come over. On this particular occasion we were at our headquarters in London.
When I came in the room, in front of the desk he placed two chairs, side by side. He sat down in one and told me to sit down in the other. That’s when he said, “I’m going to leave and I want you to run the company.” It was as simple as that.
I thought it very odd when I walked in the room and there were these two chairs side by side. I didn’t understand it until he’d made his point, but I thought it was a symbol. He was a very gracious person. So few people seemed to see that side of him, but he really was.
I think a lot of people never really understood him. He was absolutely dedicated to that company. After I did take over, he was very interested. He would come in occasionally; he enjoyed hearing about things. But he never once indicated what I should do or how I should do it or anything of that sort.