After mortality tapped him on the shoulder in the form of his first angina attack in November 1975, Henry Ford II began concentrating on his successor.
He certainly didnt want to die and leave Lee Iacocca in charge. And he didnt want to pass the baton to another family member as he was expected to do, despite his public pronouncements.
In early 1977, he said he would name a successor by year end, then elevated Philip Caldwell from executive vice president to vice chairman. Henry II also made Caldwell part of a three-man office of the chief executive along with himself and Iacocca, who was president.
The point was clear: Caldwell, the bland career executive, had leapfrogged Iacocca, the flamboyant former salesman. Even before Iacocca was fired in the summer of 1978, Caldwell had started assembling his management team. Caldwell was elected president in October 1978, three months after Iacocca was ousted.
Not at all like HFII
It would be difficult to imagine a figure less like Henry II. Methodical, cautious and colorless, Caldwell was suspicious of the press, didnt drink or smoke and was not a car guy. Caldwell was a product of the Harvard Business School and a professional manager in the General Motors mold that Henry II admired.
In retrospect, that could have tipped someone off. But as Business Week reported in early 1979: Most people do not believe that Ford really will step down. For starters, they see him cut from the same autocratic cloth as his grandfather and conclude that he is thus destined to repeat the same mistakes.
It would not be the first time Henry II confounded the skeptics. Not only was he leaving, but his departure would end 76 years of family rule.
He really did it
Henry II spelled it out at the annual shareholders meeting: I have decided to make it clear beyond any shadow of doubt. If any other member of my family achieves a senior position in the company, it will be through merit and by a decision of the board of directors. There are no crown princes in the Ford Motor Company.
Even after he formally relinquished his responsibilities as CEO on Oct. 1, 1979, doubters remained. I think it is going to be difficult for Henry Ford II to step aside, said David Lewis, University of Michigan professor and automotive historian. And the question is, if Henry remains, how strong Caldwell can be with Ford on the scene.
The answer was that Henry II wouldnt hang around. On March 13, 1980, he retired as chairman, handing that job to Caldwell as well.
A little more than a year before, Automotive News had predicted: When he leaves his present posts, Henry will turn the company over to his brother, William Clay Ford, who will become chairman, and to Philip Caldwell, who will become chief executive officer. Until William Clay Ford walked into Henry IIs office that day, he thought so, too.