Walter Hayes Ford Retirement Party
speech given by Harold (Red) A. Poling
Vice Chairman of Ford, and later Chairman
March 22nd 1989. London
Good evening again, ladies and gentlemen. It is time now to get down to the real business of the evening: the tribute to our guests of honor, Walter and Elizabeth Hayes.
Walter is retiring next month, as you know. But you may not realize that he is participating in the “salaried personnel reduction program for Vice Chairmen”. Another Vice Chairman announced his retirement a couple of weeks ago in the States, you may recognize the name, Bill Ford. But let me assure you, this is not the beginning of a trend.
Walter, this is a night that many of us have been waiting for, for quite a long time. It is not that we’re eager to see you retire. In fact, we find it hard to imagine the place without you. But I do relish the opportunity, at last, to do two things: first, to make remarks that you will want us to keep out of the hands of the media. So many times in the past, it is been the other way around. And second, in the process of gathering material for these remarks, to hear all the Walter stories that, for years, people have said are unrepeatable and repeat them!
What can you say about a man who is a legend in his own time? A man who is distinguished, brilliant, revered, renowned, and one of Britain’s greatest treasures? But enough about the Prince of Wales. This is the night to talk about Walter. A man who didn’t bother to climb the ladder of success he just stepped over it.
I first met Walter in 1972, shortly after arriving in Britain. I was struck by how much he looks like Peter Lorre, which proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that you don’t need a pretty face to be successful. In those days he had black hair, a bow-tie, and a pipe attached to his mouth. People wondered how the words ever got out. In fact, they didn’t. Not more than 50% of what Walter says, even today, is ever understood.
Nevertheless, Walter can hold forth for hours, with or without wine, at any depth, on any subject, taking either side of any argument, sometimes both, entirely without prejudice. In fact, he’s never more brilliant than when he’s arguing with himself. But he does love an audience. I’m told that Elizabeth takes great care to invite more listeners than talkers when they give parties.
I always enjoyed my conversations with Walter. He would never stand still. He’d fold his arms, cradle his pipe, rock back-and-forth, and turn away. And just as you thought the conversation was ending, he turned back to deliver a spirited retort.
But whatever he says, and wherever he goes, Walter never fails to make a lasting impression. In Fleet Street, he is remembered with awe and spoken of only in reverent tones, or is that Rupert Murdoch?
Walter, after all, was Fleet Street’s boy wonder. Almost everyone knows that he was associate editor of the “Daily Mail” and, at age 32, editor-in-chief of the “Sunday Dispatch”. The “Dispatch” was a hugely popular scandal sheet before Walter arrived. But the publishers wanted to move up-market. I understand that Walter moved it so far up-market that its readers had to look somewhere else for their Sunday morning jollies. So, Walter had to look somewhere else for a job.
The Sunday readers’ loss was Ford’s gain. But, as you can understand, Ford was totally unprepared for Walter. He did, however, have interesting friends and associates from his press days, notably a racing car engineer turned motorsports racer named Colin Chapman. That friendship led to the Cosworth engine. The rest is racing history, and the foundation of Ford’s association with the concept of total performance.
Now this is just one of the interesting developments in the company that have come about, directly or indirectly, as a result of Walter’s efforts to build up Ford’s image and reputation. There have been many. In truth, Walter has stuck a finger, if not his nose, into almost every aspect of our business, at one time or another, with or without invitation.
And that doesn’t apply just to Ford of Europe. His involvement has spanned the globe. In fact, Walter’s American Express card is more widely recognized than Karl Malden’s.
Walter’s tour of duty in America, or lend-lease in reverse, is what many consider “his finest hour”. He called it “the war over there”. He came to America at about the same time the Shah left Iran, though he didn’t see the connection at the time, bringing Elizabeth, several cases of claret, a collection of the world’s worst striped ties, and some 4000 books.
Walter said, of his first day on the job in America, “they gave me a picture of Joan Claybrook and the key to the executive loo and told me to get on with it”. Claybrook, for those who have never had the pleasure, was the auto industry’s nemesis in America, heading our main regulatory agency during the Carter years. We had hoped that Walter could charm her socks off. It turned out, she didn’t wear socks! But Walter didn’t find that out until she had been replaced!
Walter had a plan, when he arrived, to put a jaunty face, as he described it, on the company. One way or another, he would 1) make Ford more interesting to the buff magazines, 2) raise our corporate visibility in the world of arts and culture 3) take accurate aim at “special markets’, and 4) bring the company kicking and screaming, if necessary, back into motor racing in America.
It goes without saying that the plan eventually worked. But for a while, it took an act of faith on everyone’s part but Walter’s. He was never more confident! The headlines were saying: “Ford down in dumps!” “Can Ford Survive?” “Ford suffers all-time record loss” while Walter was telling us every day not to worry, and publishing his good news clip sheet to keep our spirits up.
Walter arrived in the US just in time to introduce the Escort. As everyone knows, he covered it in flags and described it as a “world car”. Of course, everyone also knows that the only thing “world” about it is that the spelling is the same on both sides of the ocean.
He got there in time to launch a new chairman, as well. A bashful, retiring executive, who always resisted appearing before the press. Walter was able, finally, to get him to give a few short public talks from time to time, from notes casually written on the backs of envelopes. But he never changed the Chairman’s habit of calling meetings to make even the smallest decisions.
Walter generally believed meetings were a waste of time, except as an opportunity to catch 40 winks. He did have a knack for waking up at just the right moment to deliver a perceptive (if often unintelligible) comment. About two thirds of the time. As for the other one third, well, the less said about that the better.
That’s why, Walter, immediately after every meeting with you there would be a debriefing session to reach a consensus on what you’d said. The matter was often settled by a vote: “all those who thought Walter recommender we proceed with the project say Aye!”
Of course, the “ayes” almost always had it, particularly if “proceeding with the project” meant spending a lot of money. Walter is the only man I know who can overspend an unlimited budget!
I have to admit, however, that most of his projects paid off, eventually. I was able to think of them in retrospect as inspired investments. A very wise rule of thumb had been given to me by a veteran Walter-watcher. He said Walter generates ideas like a nuclear chain reaction. They can range from the brilliantly sublime to the utterly ridiculous. 65% are great, 10% are so so, and the other 25% are to be avoided at all costs”.
The problem, of course, is to figure out which are which.
My approach, after a while, was to arbitrarily okay three out of every five of his proposals and take my chances. Over the years, it seemed to average out to our advantage. But there were some dubious moments.
A case in point: the Taurus-Sable media launch in the US, back in 1985, which anyone who was there will remember. Of all the, well, unusual things that have been proposed, this was about as hare-brained an idea as I had ever heard: Hollywood sound stage, done up like the bridge of a spaceship, ageing movie personalities, waiters dressed like space cadets, orbiting satellites for centerpieces, Star Wars flashlights as table favors, and more.
Bizarre as it seemed, Walter insisted it would work. And amazingly, it did! At least, Walter said it did. Of course, most of the media attention focused on the expense of the party, not the cars! The headlines read “Ford spends $3 billion for car launch party”. We were hoping for something like “Ford spends $3 billion on newly launched cars”. Thanks anyway, Walter.
There was another expensive project of your’s I’d like to mention: the “Treasure Houses of Britain Exhibition”. It was an historic first in the world of art, bringing to America priceless works from great English country homes.
All kidding aside, Walter, that was an outstanding success and an achievement worthy of the highest accolades. Although money was in short supply, once again you persuaded us to make a big investment in our public image, as a time when Ford’s reputation was sagging. “Treasure Houses” enhanced our presence in Washington and our “connections to culture” beyond our wildest expectations. The Museum director told me it took 64 books to hold all the clippings.
It wasn’t only museum directors that Walter collected while in America. He made lots of friends in all walks of life. Abroad, as at home, everyone who’s anyone knows Walter. I recall an evening here in London, when he and I had dinner together at a restaurant not far from where we are tonight. Before we got to the brandy, three members of the royal family had joined us for a cosy chat. And, I am told, Walter drops in at Number 10 Downing Street for lunch, and Mr Thatcher is his regular companion at the rugby matches.
While in Detroit, Walter became a confidant of the Mayor, among other notable persons, and put his feet under some of the best tables in town. His caricature hangs above the first booth in Detroit’s premier restaurant, the London Chop House. That’s truly a mark of honor. In fact, no other Ford executive has ever enjoyed that distinction. Of course, no other Ford executive has ever spent what Walter has there, either!
There is also a beer-stained picture of Walter above the cash register in Miller’s bar, in Dearborn. All the regulars there call him by his first name. There is a picture at the post office, too, but that’s another story.
Walter became the darling of Detroit for many reasons. One of his most important contributions was his instrumental role in bringing Formula One racing to town, and making it a success. Whoever else might take credit, we all know it was due to Henry Ford II’s vision and deep concern for the city, plus Walters initiative, determination, and connections. A high-profile international sports event, the Grand Prix, was brought to town, and Detroit’s ongoing revitalization was shown to the whole world.
It has been said by some American pundits that Britain excels into products, racing cars and journalism. Two key elements in what has been a remarkable career for one of Britain’s favorite sons. I would be tempted to use the term “The Great Communicator” if the position hadn’t already been filled.
You’ve had an enormous impact, Walter, on the company and the public. You’ve been tireless in your efforts, and I know that many people wonder what has driven you all these years. But John Waddell, whom you brought into the company to fill the jobs made vacant by your rise to the top, has finally confirmed what I have always suspected.
When Walter met John, years ago, over tea at the Ritz (Walter always did have style!) he said “we have six months when we can do whatever we think needs doing and, whatever the rules, be able to plead ignorance. That’s probably the limit. Then they’ll close in. closing. But meanwhile it will be fun”.
Well, Walter, you’ve given us the impression all these years that the job has continued to be fun. And you’ve helped to make it fun for all of your colleagues. For 27 years, you’ve done what needs doing, with vision, panache, and charm, a total disregard for the conventional wisdoms, and a rather lofty, but effective, disdain for the rules.
You are indeed a rare individual, not only the company, but the people in it are the better for having known you. And I place myself at the top of that list.
I don’t want to get too sentimental tonight. You know that isn’t my style, and I know it isn’t yours. Let me just say that you’ve touched us all with your commitment and dedication to the company we all love. You’ve made an exceptional contribution to our cause, and you will be missed.
On behalf of everyone here and all your friends across the Pond, congratulations on an outstanding career, and thank you for all you have done for us. You have much to be proud of, and we are certainly proud of you.
And our thanks to you, Elizabeth, for your contributions to our company over the years, and particularly, for the many civic, social, and intellectual contributions that earned your American community’s affection and respect, to say nothing of the keys to the city.
Walter and Elizabeth, you have our very best wishes for good health, long life, and contentment. As Shakespeare said, we wish you all the joy we can wish.
I have a small token for you, Walter, to help you remember your Ford friends and to remind you always of the significance of your English Heritage. Congratulations, Walter!