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Executives, dealers fondly remember Red Poling

Red Poling: 1925-2012

DETROIT -- Don Petersen says he and Red Poling made a terrific team as Ford Motor Co.’s two top executives a quarter century ago -- even though they came from completely different parts of the business.

Poling, who succeeded Petersen as CEO in 1990, was a bean counter par excellence -- schooled by long-time Ford finance legend Ed Lundy. Petersen came from the other end of the Ford spectrum -- a car guy, often described as Ford’s first product planner.

But they worked extremely well together, said Petersen today after learning of his former colleague’s death at age 86.

The two men were joined at the hip from 1985 through 1990, while Petersen was chairman and CEO and Poling was Ford’s hard-nosed president and COO.

“Red and I knew each other well for many, many years at Ford, and I grew to admire very much his abilities,” said Petersen, 85. “I think of him as someone who did a remarkably good job at every position he held.”

Leveraging global profits

For instance, when U.S. profits slipped, Petersen said Poling did a brilliant job of leveraging global profits.

“We worked very closely on trying to recover from bad times,” he said.

The two men held several operating positions as they rose through the ranks at Ford.

“Both of us essentially never had a staff role,” he said. “We grew up in operations. We learned early on the need for teamwork and the need for working together.”

Retired Ford Vice Chairman Ed Hagenlocker said Poling helped shape Ford’s modern image.

“He did a lot for the auto industry as both president and the CEO,” Hagenlocker said. “A lot of what Ford is today is because of what Red did when Red was in those positions.”

Hagenlocker said his relationship with Poling was mostly professional. But he says he also got to know a more relaxed Red Poling on social occasions at the Bloomfield Hills Country Club.

He called Poling an extremely hands-on executive.

“He was an individual who had high standards and high expectations and worked with you as a member of the team to achieve them,” Hagenlocker said.

Hero to dealers

Ford dealers recalled warm memories of Poling today.

Red McCombs, owner of McCombs Automotive Group in San Antonio, Texas, said in a statement: “Red Poling was a very dealer-oriented leader at Ford. All dealers probably join me in expressing our condolences to his family and our thanks for his years of leadership.”

Steve Kalafer, owner of Flemington Car and Truck Country in Flemington, N.J, said he was instrumental in sustaining the long-term survival of Ford.

“Arguably, Red was the most important person in the history of the company, because if Red didn’t stand in to fill the vacuum … at his time, I don’t know if Ford Motor Company would have continued,” Kalafer said.

“I’ll never forget, we were at one of our darkest times as a Ford dealership … and [he was] sitting on a stool, talking to us, on what was necessary for Ford and its dealers to go forward.” he said.

Bob Tasca Jr., owner of Tasca Ford-Lincoln in Cranston, R.I, and son of racing legend Bob Tasca, recalled fond memories of Poling.

“He was a fantastic man, I knew him very well,” Tasca said.

He said his father adored Poling, and that the two men were close.

“Poling was absolutely a man with impeccable integrity,” Tasca said. “When Red Poling said something, you could take it to the bank.”

He said he remembers Poling visiting his father’s dealership.

“It was a privilege for me to know him as well as I know him,” Tasca said.

He said: “Red Poling and Don Petersen [were] a great team.”

You can reach Adam Rubenfire at arubenfire@crain.com

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