Poling's plaque: What part of 'no' don't you understand?

Harold "Red" Poling (far right) at Taurus/Sable launch with Phillip Caldwell (left) and Don Petersen. Photo credit: Ford

Red Poling was not a sentimental guy.

I first met him in the Glass House in 1990, shortly after he succeeded Don Petersen as CEO of Ford Motor Co.

The first thing I noticed was a plaque on his desk: "What part of 'no' don't you understand?"

The second thing I spotted was a photo of Poling playing golf with George Bush the Elder. I asked Poling, an avid golfer, if he went easy on Bush that day. (He hadn't.)

Then I asked him about his work habits, noting that another executive took home a briefcase filled with work papers every weekend. Poling snorted and informed me that he took home two briefcases every weekend.

At this point, Red's PR guy was starting to get nervous. They were trying to humanize Poling, and he wasn't playing along.

But when I asked him how he had started out, Poling brightened and suggested that we drive over to Rouge Steel. Five minutes later, we were pacing the factory floor where he had started out as a young intern in 1950.

Poling was in his element. He told me he had studied every machine in that plant down to the last bolt. And he bragged that he knew more about that factory and its costs than any manager who later reported to him.

I liked the guy. Arguably, Poling saved Ford in 1980. He had been put in charge of North American operations that year, and everything was going to hell.

From 1979 through 1983, Ford closed 13 plants and eliminated 90,000 jobs. But when the company finally emerged from that hell, it was in fighting trim and ready to exploit the new Taurus.

Which explains that plaque on Red Poling's desk…

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