The bean-counter who saved Ford

May 16, 2012, 5:56 PM UTC

FORTUNE — The finance guys, the ones who count the money, are the least popular guys in Detroit. Essential though their job may be, they are the ones who say “no” to the special curve in the roof pillar, the extra bit of chrome on the shoulder line, or the fancy spokes on the aluminum wheels.

In my 35 years covering the auto industry, the finance guys at General Motors (GM) were reputed to be the biggest obstacles to successful new product programs, but their power mostly stemmed from the bureaucracy that had been erected around them.

The toughest bean counter in town, hands down, was Red Poling. Poling had his principles and he was willing to defend them against anyone. He took on engineers, designers, and product planners by the dozen, and his clashes with Bob Lutz, then a Ford (F) executive, were monumental — at least in Lutz’s dramatic retelling of them.

So the Ford family knew what it was doing when it pushed Don Petersen out as chairman and CEO in 1989 and installed a 63-year-old Poling to keep the company afloat during the oncoming recession.

Poling died last Saturday at the age of 86. Ford Motor reported his death on Tuesday.

Poling had three principles: the way to win in the car business is to be the low-cost producer, the way to be the low-cost producer was to set aggressive cost targets and hit them, and the trunk of a new car always had to be bigger than the one on the outgoing model. (As a low-handicap golfer, Polling was sensitive to carrying capacity for golf bags).

Missing a financial target could be the occasion for a volcanic explosion from Poling. In “Car,” the story behind the development of the 1996 Taurus, author Mary Walton describes him as “a man to whom the cost of a car was paramount.” The ’86 Taurus, the hugely successful jelly bean shaped model that revolutionized Ford, did not meet its targets. It cost $216 more to make each one than planned and its production had started three months behind schedule.

The Taurus would go on to win Car of the Year accolades, but Poling wasn’t satisfied. He told the engineer in charge, Lew Veraldi, that “he couldn’t trust him because he’d overrun his budget.” The success of the Taurus would make Veraldi a deity at Ford, but not to Poling. Years later, after both men had retired, Poling was still angry. He told Walton, “I thought very highly of Lew Veraldi. He was not as concerned with cost as I felt he should be.”

Such was Poling’s power that it cascaded down to those below him who were believed to be in his inner circle. Former Formula One driver Jackie Stewart, a Ford consultant, was one of them. Stewart, who could be garrulous and opinionated, got handled with kid gloves when he was reviewing new models because he was close to Poling. “It was widely believed that Jackie could walk into Red’s office on the twelfth floor of World Headquarters whenever he wanted, sit down in one of Red’s chairs, and talk to Red about whatever was on his mind,” Walton writes. “No one wanted Stewart to tell the chief executive officer of Ford Motor Company that he was disappointed with the new Taurus.”

Poling was an offstage player in one of Ford’s notorious succession dramas. Chairman and CEO Petersen had a falling out with the founding family for appointing Bill and Edsel, two great-grandsons of Henry Ford, and then not assigning them to any board committees. Petersen, coasting on an upturn in sales at the end of the 1980s, was turning off Ford’s outside directors too with his arrogance and temper. Ford had just paid five times book value for Jaguar and Petersen was seen as too free with the checkbook. Poling, meanwhile, was loyally serving as vice chairman, at age 63, serving out his time until retirement. But in October, the board turned on Petersen, forcing him out. The way Petersen would frame the issue, he was leaving so that his “partner and friend Red Poling” could have a shot at the top job. For his part, Petersen said he was going off to “repot” himself.

Poling managed the numbers and got Ford through the recession with draconian cuts in North America before handing off the top job in 1993 to Alex Trotman. But he didn’t cover himself with glory when it came to personnel relations. He humiliated the engineer in charge of the 1989 Thunderbird, along with his team, at a big celebratory dinner for signing up for a set of numbers on weight and cost and then not delivering. Poling hammered away at them all through his speech. “You made a commitment, but you didn’t keep it,” he scolded. (The incident was reported in “Comeback” by the Wall Street Journal’s Paul Ingrassia and Joe White).

But Poling didn’t keep his own commitment to Allan Gilmour, a top financial executive. Gilmour told me that Poling had assured him in the early 1990s that he was on track to succeed him as Ford’s next CEO. The company’s executive ranks were thin, and Gilmour was capable and well-liked. Butt when Gilmour discovered that the job was going to Trotman instead, he confronted Poling.

As I reported in my memoir “Sixty to Zero,” Poling told him that compared with Trotman, Gilmour didn’t have broad operating experience. Gilmour, who was a closeted gay at the time, asked Poling, “Is there any particular trouble?” And Polling said, “No.” Recalled Gilmour: “I’ll never know why I was passed over, but I think Red left the succession question to the board and did not take a strong stand. Whether being gay hurt my chances, I honestly don’t know.”

Ford public relations would struggle to make Poling into an archetypal car guy, photographing him in a Ford windbreaker along with other Ford directors, and sending him to Bob Bondurant’s performance driving school. But I suspected differently. During one interview I accidentally set my tape recorder on “voice activate,” meaning it would pause every time one of us stopped talking. Poling somehow noticed this and would tell me each time that the recorder was malfunctioning.

Once a bean-counter, always a bean-counter.