Phil Caldwell is the kind of person who disappears in a crowd. His gray suits match his gray hair and his speech reflects slightly non-descript Midwestern origins. He's about as flashy as a General Motors sedan.

In case you don't remember, Phil Caldwell is the man who beat out Lee Iacocca to succeed Henry Ford as the chairman and chief executive officer of Ford Motor Co. He stepped down in March of 1985 at age 65, leaving behind a rebuilt organization that last year earned more money than General Motors Corp.Based on 20/20 hindsight, Mr. Caldwell was an excellent choice. But it may be one of the better kept secrets in U.S. business. He's never tooted his own horn and his bland style contributed to the lack of recognition he has received to date. Indeed, when Robert Lacey wrote his recent best-selling book on Ford, he interviewed hundreds of people but never bothered to talk with Phil Caldwell.

Throughout his five-year tenure at the helm of Ford, the low-keyed Mr. Caldwell was low man on the Detroit totem pole. Here was Lee Iacocca at Chrysler Corp., one of the country's most recognizable figures, as flashy and colorful as they come. Roger Smith, General Motors chairman, was in appearance even more improbable than Mr. Caldwell with a high, squeaky voice. But Mr. Smith was the master of the grand strategy, the home run school of management, who regularly made headlines with billion-dollar acquisitions and billion- dollar projects such as the much-ballyhooed Saturn program - which now appears to be on the back-burner. Meanwhile, Mr. Caldwell was chopping the Ford work force by more than 125,000 people and annual costs by $4 billion.

During my years at the Detroit Free Press, which roughly paralleled Mr. Caldwell's turn at the Ford helm, Phil Caldwell was considered likeable but something of a question mark. At one point in the 1980-81 period, Ford's billion-dollar losses were so egregious there were rumors Henry himself would return. But Henry said no, he was satisfied with management.

I would see Mr. Caldwell from time to time at cocktail parties or civic functions. He was affable and modest. At the time, I don't think many really understood how brilliantly the company was attacking its problems under Mr. Caldwell.

Over lunch last week, I had the pleasure of renewing my acquaintance with Mr. Caldwell at the India House in New York City. It was like sitting across

from the turtle who had won the race with the hare.

I could not help remembering a meeting in Detroit in 1984, called by Mayor Coleman Young, at which Roger Smith and Phil Caldwell were seated next to each other. Mr. Smith was speaking informally to a round table of civic leaders when Mr. Caldwell interrupted him with a good-natured jest. Unsmiling, Mr. Smith not only did not respond, he stopped talking. For fully 30 seconds there was absolute silence, and each passing second seemed to bring growing embarrassment to Mr. Caldwell, who finally broke the silence by babbling an apology.

Mr. Smith resumed speaking but in a manner that left Mr. Caldwell still squirming. Clearly, Mr. Smith knew how to handle unwanted frivolity. But I never thought as much of him after that. I wanted to ask Phil Caldwell last week if he remembered that incident. But I didn't.

Mr. Caldwell is now 67 and looks well and said he is enjoying his new career as senior managing director of Shearson Lehman Bros. Inc., a position he took at the request of an old friend, Jim Robinson, chairman of American Express, which owns Shearson.

"Lehman Brothers has a long tradition of hiring industrialists," he said. "It's really a bit like the car business in that you have to ask yourself the question, why should someone walk across the street from a competitor and buy your product?"

The answer, according to Mr. Caldwell, is that you have to have a better product, which is exactly what Ford Motor Co. did not have back in the late '70s. "All of our cars were cold" (as opposed to hot sellers), he recalled.

He said it was in 1980 in Paris that the $3 billion decision was made to go ahead with the now hugely successful Taurus program, a major reason why Ford earnings have recently been so strong.

Still modest, Mr. Caldwell credits the Ford success under his stewardship to "the great talent of all of our people." It is a typical comment from a man who says the most important thing that ever happened to him was meeting Betsey, his wife of 41 years.

"Everyone has something worthwhile to contribute if we can just create the environment for them to do it," he said, sounding much like a Japanese executive.

One of the memorable moments in Mr. Caldwell's career, he said, was when a worker at a Ford plant told him he had made 17 suggestions that year.

"This is the first time in 25 years I have ever made any suggestion," the worker told Mr. Caldwell.

Throughout his career, one of Phil Caldwell's great strengths was that he was tough on costs.

"Costs are like the jungle, they keep growing all of the time," he said. ''If you don't keep cutting them back, they can overwhelm you."

"Back in 1979 we decided that quality had to be our number one objective and that takes cooperation from everyone," said Mr. Caldwell. "If we were to get people to buy our cars they would have to be better, not just as good as the competition."

It's funny how the pendulum swings. Up today and down tomorrow. Ask Ronald Reagan or Roger Smith, who has gone from genius to embattled executive in just two years.

Asked about the problems at General Motors, Mr. Caldwell said he is not going to kick anyone when they are down. But he did say, "You win more pennants with singles and doubles than with home runs."

He said the success of Taurus resulted from the involvement of engineering, assembling, marketing and advertising - from the very start.

Mr. Caldwell agrees that some criticism of Detroit is justified. But he said the American public may not fully appreciate the positive accomplishments of Detroit, especially the gains in fuel economy.

"The Lincoln town car of today has better fuel economy than the Pinto of 1975," Mr. Caldwell said.

I wish I had more space to write about Mr. Caldwell. He personifies much of what is right about American business.

Maybe someone should write a book about his 31 years at Ford. His quiet, analytical style, his team approach to management, his understanding of costs and quality, made him every bit as successful as Lee Iacocca. But then again I'm afraid it would sell at only a fraction of the flamboyant Mr. Iacocca's best-selling autobiography. Mr. Caldwell may have to content himself with having proven there is more than one way to skin a cat.

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