TBT: This Former Ford Leader Pushed Company to Produce Vehicles They Would Want to Drive

May 02, 2024

At a time in the 1980s when Ford was struggling, former Chairman and CEO Donald Petersen led the company on a product and quality renaissance that helped revive it.

Ford had invested $8 billion in new products and facilities in the early 1980s as losses totaled more than $3 billion due to significant change in the automotive industry. As he took control of Ford in 1985, Petersen was tasked with setting the course for the rebounding company – “a road on which the company would embark with absolute commitment to a wide array of high-quality products with strong customer appeal,” according to a 1986 Ford profile of Petersen’s career. 

A Marine Corps veteran of World War II and the Korean War, Petersen joined Ford in 1949 and helped establish a product planning department. While there, he played a substantial role in the development of cars like the Ford LTD, Mustang, Fairlane, Maverick, and Mark III. Petersen’s time in product planning also coincided with the launch of the revolutionary 1949 Ford Thunderbird and other products of the 1950s and ’60s.

During his 41-year career at Ford, Petersen also headed the company’s truck operations, where he was instrumental in developing plans for Ford’s 1980 fleet of downsized pickup trucks. Petersen also pushed the company to become the industry leader in automotive electronics, powertrain technology, alternative fuels, and aerodynamics.

After five years as company president, Petersen became chairman and CEO in 1985, making him just the second non-Ford family member to hold those titles. He was hailed by the New York Times as “the first of a new wave of top auto executives who are more concerned about products and production systems than financial analysis.”

Industry-leading design

Shortly after becoming president of Ford in 1980, Petersen famously instructed the company’s designers to make cars they would be proud to drive and show off to friends and family. The resulting departure from traditional automotive design yielded some of the industry’s best-selling vehicles, including the Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable, as well as the Thunderbird and Continental Mark VII, among others. According to an article in Fortune magazine, the shift put Ford-built products “in the forefront of the worldwide trend toward sleeker, more aerodynamic styling. Ford’s adventuresome new products show it is willing to take the sort of risks that make a company a leader rather than a follower.”

In addition to appearance, Petersen knew Ford products needed to prioritize quality, and he helped recruit Dr. W. Edwards Deming, a quality expert, to join in the company’s efforts. The Ford-Deming collaboration resulted in the creation of six quality- and customer-focused guiding principles for the company, according to a 2007 Wall Street Journal op-ed written by Petersen. The Petersen era also saw the creation of the long-running “Quality is Job 1” campaign. He was named Chief Executive of the Year in 1989 and was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1992.

Petersen’s legacy

Petersen announced his retirement in 1990, thanking Ford team members for their commitment to the company’s turnaround in the previous decade and citing a desire to spend more time with his family. He was succeeded by colleague and friend Harold Arthur “Red” Poling. Today, Petersen is remembered as a “steadfast leader during an important part of Ford’s history,” according to a recent company-issued statement following his death at age 97.

“He insisted on teamwork and excellence in the name of customers and guided Ford through a period of revitalization and intense competition in the global auto industry,” the statement reads. “Donald pushed his teams to design and deliver vehicles they’d be proud to park in their own driveways, a standard to which we still hold ourselves. Our thoughts and prayers are with Donald’s family during this sad time.”

While it’s easy to remember the vehicles that have helped propel the company through challenging times, Donald Petersen will always be known for helping set Ford on the right course

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