Obituary: Philip Caldwell / Ford Motor's first nonfamily chief

Jan. 27, 1920 - July 10, 2013

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Philip Caldwell, the button-down manager chosen over Lee Iacocca to become the first head of Ford Motor Co. who was not a member of the Ford family, died on Wednesday at his home in New Canaan, Conn. He was 93. The cause was complications of a stroke, his family said.

Mr. Caldwell was known as a prodigious worker with a knack for restoring floundering divisions of Ford to financial health. He guided the company through some of its most difficult years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when all of Detroit struggled to cope with a sour economy, high gasoline prices and the first sustained onslaught by Japanese automakers.

He left his mark more on the company's bottom line than its product line, turning the record losses of more than $1.5 billion that Ford recorded in 1980, his first full year as chief executive, into record profits of $2.9 billion in 1984. At the same time his management team -- including his labor chief, Peter Pestillo -- greatly improved Ford's strained relations with its unions. And he laid the groundwork for the company's biggest success in a generation: the Taurus, the top-selling car of the late '80s and '90s.

Mr. Caldwell, who spent a total of 37 years at Ford, never developed a reputation as a "car guy," someone motivated by a passion for automotive design and engineering or the thrill of driving. Nor was he a salesman at heart, as many auto executives are.

Rather, he rose to the top as a manager who could handle tough assignments, overhauling one struggling business unit after another by cutting costs and ratcheting up productivity and profits, most notably in the truck division, the Philco electronics subsidiary and Ford's overseas operations.

By the 1970s, Mr. Caldwell was one of Henry Ford II's most loyal and trusted lieutenants. But he was almost unknown outside the company -- in stark contrast to the larger-than-life Mr. Iacocca, who famously rode the success of the Mustang in the 1960s to the presidency of Ford, the No. 2 post, but who came to be seen by Ford II as more rival than colleague.

Outsiders were stunned when Ford II dismissed Mr. Iacocca in 1977 and elevated Mr. Caldwell, first to vice chairman and later to chief executive and chairman.

Ford II, grandson of the company's founder, kept an important role on the board throughout Mr. Caldwell's tenure.

Born in the tiny farming town of Bourneville, Ohio, on Jan. 27, 1920, Mr. Caldwell studied economics 80 miles away at Muskingum College (now Muskingum University).

He was completing a master's degree in business administration at Harvard when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, prompting him to join the Navy and serve as a lieutenant in the Pacific.

When the war ended in 1945, he stayed with the Navy in a civilian job as a procurement manager.

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