Ford CEO Phil Caldwell Was Weird, Stubborn, Obsessive, But Successful

Perhaps the best description of Phil Caldwell came from the lips of Henry Ford II’s butler in the Ford apartment in London. Bedwell, the butler, was serving me one evening after he had just come off of a full week of attending to the needs of Phil Caldwell. “I beg your pardon, sir... I always try to please, and consider myself an excellent professional, but I must say, Mr. Lutz, that I find Mr. Caldwell to be a highly unusual person.”

That phrase would be repeated to me by literally dozens of people who felt diminished by their encounter with Caldwell and wanted to talk about it.

In the case of Bedwell, it involved Caldwell’s freshly shined shoes, which he held under Bedwell’s nose and asked, “Bedwell, what do you see wrong with these?”

“Nothing, sir. I see a properly polished pair of shoes, sir.”

“Look again, Bedwell. Look closely.”

“I don’t see anything, sir.”

“Well, I’ll give you a clue: they’re not even!”

“Not even, sir? Could you tell me what’s not even?”

“The laces, Bedwell. The laces. They’re not exactly the same length.”

He told me that in his many years of service to Henry Ford II, and with the royal household before that, he had never had such an experience. I told him Phil Caldwell was a fine executive and that we all had to overlook some of his major personal idiosyncrasies.

(Former Ford CEO Phillip Caldwell died Wednesday at his home in Connecticut at age 93. He was the first non-Ford family remember to head up Ford. This text is excerpted from Bob Lutz's book Icons and Idiots: Straight Talk on Leadership. It's a good read with typically hilarious and insightful stories like this one from "Maximum" Bob. — Ed.)

One time, my chauffeur at Ford had left me to my own devices in order to drive Phil Caldwell during one of his visits to Germany. It seems my driver had been told by Caldwell to seek out the manager at the hotel where Caldwell stayed. The manager would give him a zipper bag of highly confidential content. He was to take the bag directly to the General Aviation terminal at the Bonn airport, find the captain of the Ford Air Gulfstream IV, and deliver the secret bag.

My driver had to insist at the hotel before they actually produced the manager, who, nodding knowingly, duly produced the heavy zipper bag. The driver took it to the airport and found the pilot. The latter, quite used to such situations, apparently said, “Okay, leave it on the bench. I’ll take it out to the plane later.” Horrified, the chauffeur said, “Oh, no, Mr. Caldwell said it’s very important that the bag be placed on the airplane at once. We can’t leave it anywhere!”

Ford CEO Phil Caldwell Was Weird, Stubborn, Obsessive, But Successful

At this, the pilot said, "Aw, fer Chrissake! I’ll show you what’s in the damn bag,” and, so saying, yanked open the zipper to the shock of the designated courier. There, for all to see, was a cloth airline bag overflowing with dozens of the tiny little jam pots that were routinely served with breakfast at the better European hotels! So much for the top-secret highly important mission.

Sadly, Phil’s insistence on absolute obedience at times took bizarre twists: Ford of Europe had successfully launched the subcompact Fiesta in 1977, and it was now time to kick off the design and engineering of the 1981 Escort, a modern, front-wheel-drive compact, a size larger than the Fiesta. Phil had decreed that the same platform be used for the Escort. We knew it wouldn’t work. Finally, after a particularly arduous session, Phil agreed that the planned 1981 Escort could be a “stretched” Fiesta. That solved the problem of the missing length, but the resulting car would “look like it was designed in a narrow hallway.”

Then, the Ford of Europe VP of Engineering spoke up. “Phil, while we’re doing the stretch, I think we could also widen it!” Since this is manifestly impossible if the same platform is to be used, I was expecting Phil to say, “What are you trying to pull? ‘Stretch and widen’ means a new underbody, and that’s what I’m asking you to save.” Instead, he beamed at the VP and said, “Now we’re getting to the intelligent solution! Stretch and widen the Fiesta platform; that’s the way to go!”

So that we weren’t completely dishonest, there was about a three-foot section of the floor pan that had exactly the same shape as the Fiesta. Thus, Fiesta DNA was alive and well, we had the car we needed, no money was saved, and Phil Caldwell went away with the warm feeling that, thanks to his leadership, major subcompact/compact commonality had been achieved, generating as yet unfathomed engineering and manufacturing efficiencies.

Looking at the sum of these vignettes, it would be tempting to dismiss him as a sort of corporate Captain Queeg: petty, focused on personal prestige, uncaring about his subordinates, and given to poor business judgment.

Ford CEO Phil Caldwell Was Weird, Stubborn, Obsessive, But Successful

But surprisingly, that would be the wrong conclusion. While lacking any real operational or “car guy” interests, or skills, for that matter, Phil Caldwell had one powerful sense of purpose that overrode his many quirks and foibles: he was totally, undeviatingly focused on making Ford the quality leader of the world, surpassing the then-seemingly unbeatable Toyota. He teetered on obsession. But, when it came to quality in the United States, it took an obsessive personality to energize a culture raised on “nobody’s perfect, and good enough is fine.”

Phil cut through that in his usual stubborn, unreasonable, step-by-step, “peel the onion one layer at a time” way. Often reminded of the perilous financial position in which Ford found itself at the time (Chrysler had basically gone under and was seeking federal loan guarantee relief) and warned that his quality obsession was costing a lot of money, Phil was wont to say, “We may go out of business. I hope we don’t, but if we do, I want people to say, ‘What a shame! They were building the best cars and trucks in the world!’”

Phil was a strong supporter of compelling products and pushed heavily for advanced European designs. He had realized that American taste was rapidly shifting away from traditional, glitzy, boxy, vinyl-roofed styling and was more and more drawn to the sleek, functional aesthetics as exemplified by German makes such as Audi and BMW. Consequently, he became the leading supporter of the original Taurus-Sable twins: sleek, aerodynamic midsize sedans unlike anything ever produced in the United States.

Phil Caldwell referred to Taurus and Sable as “our silver bullets,” because the clay models in Design were painted in a bright, metallic silver. Phil was right about their future impact on Ford, and the introduction of the two wildly successful vehicles coincided with the end of his tenure.

Phil Caldwell was great but also immensely flawed.

This story originally appeared as a chapter of Icons and Idiots: Straight Talk on Leadership on and was republished with permission of Portfolio. We've added a headline and shortened the text.

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