Harold A. Poling, better-known as “Red,” died Saturday at the age of 86. He was the former head of Ford Motor Co. who oversaw its restructuring and launch of key vehicles, including the company-saving Ford Taurus. A native of Troy, Michigan, Poling was living in Pacific Grove, California at the time of his death. He is survived by Marian, his wife of 55 years, and by his daughters Pam and Kathryn and his son Doug.
In a statement, Bill Ford, Executive Chairman of Ford Motor Company, said: “Red Poling was an extraordinary leader who had a profound impact on Ford Motor Company and everyone who worked with him. With a list of accomplishments that span 43 years, including leading the company through a remarkable turnaround during the 1980s and 1990s, Red was respected by all for his leadership, his passion for being the low-cost producer and his genuine affinity for people. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family.”
Cars were always in Poling’s blood: one of four children born to a mechanic and a nurse, Poling remembered spending a lot of time with his father.
“We’d grind valves, change piston rings and clutches and do lots of other jobs,” said Poling. “It was serious work but to me it was interesting.”
After service in the Navy, Poling went to Monmouth College, graduating with a BA in 1949. He received an MBA in accounting from Indiana University in 1951. At Monmouth, he was a member of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity.
Poling’s automotive career began in 1950 as a Ford intern in the Rouge steel mill. After he completed his MBA, he returned to Ford and his first full-time job: cost analyst in the Steel Division controller’s office. Over his career, Poling held a series of finance positions in many different departments of the automaker ultimately rising to chairman and president of Ford of Europe in July 1977 and executive vice president – Ford North American Automotive Operations in March 1980.
Poling was made a member of Ford’s board of directors in May 1979 and was elected chairman in March 1990. On February 1, 1985, Poling was named Ford president and chief operating officer, and he became vice chairman and chief operating officer on Oct. 13, 1987.
Poling turned the sinking Ford of the late 1970s into the booming automaker of the 1980s with homeruns like Jack Telnack’s radical Taurus, which quickly became the best-selling car in America. During his time at the helm, Ford launched the Windstar minivan, the only domestic minivan model to pose a serious threat to Chrysler’s supremacy in the segment, as well as a new Mustang. He went to the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving to learn about racing – but also to better evaluate the products the company was developing.
Poling retired in 1994 and was succeeded by Alex Trotman, a 38-year Ford veteran.
In 1986 Poling received the Distinguished Service Citation from the Automotive Hall of Fame and he was also honored by the Engineering Society of Detroit and received Horatio Alger award and the University of Michigan Business Leadership Award. He was even named Honorary Knight Commander of the Civil Division of Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by the British Ambassador and in 1993 received the Albert Schweitzer leadership award.
Poling said his all-time favorite car was his first car: a 1932 Ford Model A bought used but in good shape.