Nick Scheele, former president and COO of Ford, dies at age 70

Nick Scheele, president and COO of Ford, prepares to drive a Ford GT during the opening ceremony marking Ford's 100-year anniversary in June 2003 in Dearborn, Mich.

Photo credit: BLOOMBERG
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Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the time period Nick Scheele served as both president and COO of Ford Motor Co.

DETROIT -- Nick Scheele, a globe-trotting troubleshooter and tough-nosed negotiator who served as president and COO of Ford Motor Co., died Friday. He was 70.

The affable, British-born Scheele spent nearly four decades at Ford and his easy-going style earned him a bevy of friends and admirers throughout the auto industry.

He served as chairman and CEO of Ford's Jaguar Cars unit from 1992 to 1999 and chairman of Ford of Europe from January 2000 through July 2001.

He was tapped to oversee the company's troubled North American operations starting in Aug. 2001 and capped his career as Ford’s president and COO from Oct. 2001-04, and president from April 2004 until he retired in Feb. 2005.

Scheele delayed retirement plans to help manage Ford's restructuring and groom new leaders.  

“The time was right," Scheele told Automotive News of his decision to leave in 2005. "I wanted to retire some time ago. We’ve now got the next generation of management in place. They’re now taking the company forward. That is what my responsibility really partially was.”

Scheele, working under then-CEO Bill Ford, led the automaker's turnaround plan after the departure of former CEO Jacques Nasser.

Ford was losing U.S. market share and spending huge sums of money, like other automakers in the post-Sept. 11 U.S. economy, on consumer rebates and incentives.

The company remained profitable but only because of Ford Credit.

Nick Scheele

“Not only did Nick help us overcome many challenges at the time, he mended relationships with our dealers, our suppliers and our employees, and set the stage for many of today’s leaders who are moving us forward," Executive Chairman Bill Ford said in a statement Friday. “Nick Scheele was an outstanding leader whose global experience and passion for our products served Ford Motor Company at a critical time."

Scheele was no stranger to solving problems and helped steer Ford through some of its best and worst times, including the Firestone tire crisis at the turn of the century.

At the time of his appointment as head of Ford's North American operations, Scheele downplayed the notion that Ford needed a savior.

"It's not broken -- let's be clear about that," he told Automotive News at the time. "We've got a few problems, but the barn isn't burning down."

But in a 2002 interview with Fortune, Scheele rattled off some other ills still battering Ford: weak capital spending, high marketing outlays, damaging employee lawsuits, and the Firestone tire debacle.

He found it hard to believe that Ford, which just two years earlier was widely admired for being one of the world's best-managed automakers, had fallen so far so fast.

"It is absolutely nuts," he told the magazine.

Europe revamp

Scheele largely honed his turnaround skills in Europe, where his articulate and approachable manner and candid communication skills came into play more than once.

In 2000, after becoming chairman of Ford Europe, he crafted a comeback plan that involved closing plants, enhancing quality and investing in new products.

Scheele, along with factory expert David Thursfield, improved Ford's market share in Europe and stewarded it to a small profit in 2001 after several years of losses.

In a show of resolve, Scheele oversaw the painful and controversial decision in 2000 to close Ford's venerable car assembly operation in Dagenham, England, but managed to handle it with great composure and skill.

The move brought an end to Ford assembly operations in Britain, which dated back to 1911, when the company began making the Model T in Manchester, its first factory outside the United States.

The closing eliminated 1,900 jobs and was particularly difficult for Scheele because he was born in Essex, the county where Dagenham is located.

"We require plants that are capable of manufacturing this car today and another car tomorrow," Scheele said at the time. "Dagenham doesn't have that flexibility."

Scheele, second from right, joined other Ford executives in Jan. 2002 to announce plans to cut 35,000 jobs, close 5 factories by the end of the decade and drop four nameplates to restore profits.

Photo credit: BLOOMBERG

Jaguar years

Ford purchased Jaguar in 1989 and in 1992 installed Scheele as chairman and CEO.

Scheele helped stabilize Jaguar sales, revamp its manufacturing operations, improve quality and launch new models such as the XK8 sports car.

He eventually did what many industry skeptics thought would be impossible -- led Jaguar out of the craft-shop era and make it profitable, at least for a short time. Queen Elizabeth II later knighted Scheele for saving the beloved British brand.

In a story last week with England’s Birmingham Post, Scheele said Ford made the right decision to sell Jaguar and Land Rover in 2007.

“Had Jaguar Land Rover still been around, it could have turned the ship over," Scheele told the paper. "It was a mammoth cash drain, and in the dark times of 2008-09, cash was what was required.”

Nick Scheele was born on Jan. 3, 1944.

He started his Ford career in 1966 right out of college and held several senior purchasing posts in the company's British and European operations before moving to the United States in 1978.

He was named president of Ford of Mexico in 1988. 

After he retired from Ford on Feb. 1, 2005, Scheele served as chancellor at the University of Warwick, one of England's top engineering schools, located in Coventry, the cradle of the country's auto industry.

In an interview with Automotive News before his retirement, after more than 38 years with Ford, Scheele boiled success in the auto industry down to a few fundamental practices.

"You've got to make models that are appealing, have high quality, great durability; and you can sell them at a profit for a price that people consider to be a great value," Scheele said. "Apart from that, it's easy."

David Phillips and Bradford Wernle contributed to this report.

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com.


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