Gobsmacked by Nick Scheele's kindness

I’ll never forget the day Nick Scheele helped me clean the fresh paint off my suit.

Back in May 2001, when I was working for Automotive News Europe, I was among a group of journalists invited to Turkey for a press conference and festivities to launch production of the Transit and Transit Connect commercial vans at Ford’s Otosan Kocaeli, factory about 50 miles east of Istanbul.

After we had toured the factory and eaten lunch, there was a lull in the activities as I was waiting to interview some Ford officials. I leaned up against a railing in the plant and noticed a sticky sensation. I turned around to see that I had a nice, fat stripe of wet white paint on the back of my suit coat.

Just as I was surveying the damage, Scheele, then chairman of Ford of Europe, happened to be passing by and noticed my predicament.

“Brad, you should know better than to touch anything at a car plant when corporate executives and politicians are in town for a visit,” he said with a broad grin. “It’s highly likely there will be fresh paint around.”

I scarcely had time to reply before Scheele told me he was going to go and locate someone who could help clean the paint off my jacket. And sure enough, within moments, he returned with a man who had some solvent and carefully wicked the paint out with a clean white cloth.

As they like to say in Nick Scheele’s native England, I was gobsmacked. Here was the chairman of Ford of Europe going out of his way to help a journalist remove wet paint from his jacket on a day when he had so many other duties to attend to.

I kept in touch with Scheele after he retired as president of Ford Motor Co. in 2005. I had interviewed him as recently as June for a story I did on Bill Ford, Ford Motor Co. executive chairman.

Speaking by phone from his home in the village of Henley-in-Arden in Warwickshire, England, Scheele was helpful as usual, giving me valuable insights into the character of the man he once worked for and whom he respected deeply.

That conversation was still fresh in my mind last week when I learned he died at age 70. We journalists are supposed to remain objective about the executives we cover, but I will freely admit Nick Scheele was someone I admired a lot.

We had a joking challenge around the Automotive News Europe newsroom in central London: Was it possible to write a story about Nick Scheele without using the word “affable” to describe him?

Scheele had a politician’s gift for remembering names. Not long after he had left Jaguar to become chairman of Ford of Europe, I was lucky enough to join Scheele and some other Ford officials when he returned to Jaguar’s Browns Lane headquarters for lunch.

Jaguar’s tiny executive lunchroom was staffed by some older local women who were clearly thrilled to have the former boss back in town. Scheele took time to say hello to each by name, asking after the welfare of their families and telling them how he had missed them all. They were clearly moved, and so was I.

In 2001, I was on hand at a central London hotel where Scheele and then Ford of Europe President David Thursfield announced Ford was terminating vehicle assembly operations at its Dagenham plant east of London. Dagenham, in Essex, is not far from Scheele’s birthplace and every bit as much Ford country as Dearborn in Detroit. So the decision to end vehicle production at Ford’s last volume car plant in Britain after many decades was especially difficult and very personal for him.

That day, he and Thursfield were besieged by journalists in a politically charged atmosphere. Some of the reporters were clearly on a mission to outdo each other writing stories about what an outrage the plant closure was to Dagenham’s loyal workers.

One radio journalist demanded to know: “How does it feel to have wrecked the lives of all those workers?”

Scheele never missed a step, patiently explaining that the Dagenham had no extra space to expand and Ford’s other Fiesta plant in Cologne, Germany, did and that Ford needed to save costs to remain viable. After the brief radio interview, the journalist apologized: “I hope you understand, I was just doing my job.” Scheele said he did understand.

Watching Scheele deftly handle the aggressive horde of journalists, I realized why some executives earn every penny of the big salaries companies pay them.

As an executive who came up through the Ford ranks in purchasing, Scheele was instrumental in bringing several key safety features to Ford vehicles.

Once, when he was chairman of Jaguar, Scheele showed the unflappable side of his nature. En route from Coventry to York, England, for the opening of a dealership, Scheele and his driver were caught in a torrential thunderstorm. Their car hit a pool of standing water and aquaplaned. The driver lost control, and the car left the road, climbed an embankment and overturned.

Scheele would later recall that the accident unfolded in slow motion. As it did, he remembered thinking of all the safety features he’d helped bring to Ford during his purchasing days, including the airbags and pretensioners, and how relieved he was to learn they functioned as advertised. Scheele was able to joke about the incident in the office the next morning.

In 2000, Scheele and his wife, Ros, were staying at the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Cologne. During the middle of the night, the fire alarm sounded and all guests were asked to gather in the lobby. Scheele and his wife donned their bathrobes and dutifully filed down. The next day, German newspapers ran pictures of the Ford of Europe chairman, fast asleep on the floor while excitement raged around him.

When histories of Ford are written, Nick Scheele will likely be remembered as more of a transitional than a central figure. But he was a Ford man and a gentleman through and through. I can’t believe he is no longer with us.

You can reach Bradford Wernle at bwernle@autonews.com

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