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Petersen Steers Ford Motor Without 'Hank the Deuce'

October 02, 1987|JAMES RISEN

This week's death of Henry Ford II should dramatically alter the corporate dynamics under which Ford Chairman Donald E. Petersen operates.

Petersen, chairman since 1985, is only the second non-Ford family member to run the world's second-largest auto maker. Now, he will be the first not to have Hank the Deuce--as Henry Ford II was known--looking over his shoulder.

Although Henry Ford II turned over day-to-day control of Ford to his management team when he retired as chairman in 1980, he continued to closely monitor the company while retaining his position as chairman of the finance committee on Ford's board. With his family still holding working control of the company, Ford also was undoubtedly able to determine who would be named chairman or president of the firm.

But now, the Ford family has lost its most influential voice in company affairs. While William Clay Ford, Henry's younger brother, is still vice chairman of Ford, he has never been as active in the company as Henry.

William Clay, who owns much more stock in Ford than did his brother, may soon be forced to assume the family leadership position so long held by Henry. He then might also become more assertive at Ford Motor. But there is still likely to be at least a brief period during which Petersen will find himself running the family's empire with no input from the family.

Petersen was unavailable to discuss the impact Henry Ford's death may have on the corporation. But it is clear that Petersen, the ultimate "team player," as Ford officials like to say, is unlikely to change much at the company.

In fact, both he and his immediate predecessor, Philip Caldwell, have tried to move Ford away from the political infighting that nearly paralyzed the company during the monumental battles of the late 1970s between Lee Iacocca, then Ford president, and Henry II.

Indeed, Petersen, who turned 61 last month, may be the man most responsible for Ford Motor's dramatic turnaround since that dark time. Born in Pipestone, Minn., in 1926, Petersen joined Ford in 1949 after receiving an MBA from Stanford University and an engineering degree from the University of Washington.

Petersen made his name in Ford's engineering and car development ranks, serving as car product planning manager for the Ford Division, and later in the Product Development Group, while Ford was developing the hugely successful Mustang in the 1960s.

He moved up through the engineering and product planning divisions--the heart and soul of an auto company--and thus has earned one of Detroit's most cherished labels--he is a "car guy."

By the time Petersen was named president, just as Caldwell took over as chairman in 1980, Ford Motor was in serious trouble. It was building truly dreadful cars, and it was about to begin one of the most serious downturns in its history.

It was Petersen who finally convinced the rest of top management that Ford, in order to survive, had to break with the rest of Detroit on automotive styling and design. While Caldwell concentrated on the auto maker's financial health, Petersen took charge of the automotive operations. He ripped up existing plans for future car designs, and ordered a new aerodynamic approach to styling.

The results, most notably with the Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable, have been startling. Now, Ford has not only become the most profitable American auto maker, but the company is now widely considered to be the U.S. leader in automotive design.

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