Donald Petersen’s forward thinking and concern for customers helped bring Ford Motor Company to repeated profitability. During his 41-year career with Ford, he moved steadily up the ranks before serving as president, CEO and chairman of the board. Petersen changed the Ford culture, focusing on inclusive teamwork and putting quality before anything else. When he retired in 1990, Ford had gone through a remarkable turn-around.
Born in 1926 in Pipestone, Minnesota, Petersen served in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II and the Korean War. In between the wars, Petersen earned a bachelor’s of science degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Washington in 1946. He joined Ford in 1949 after receiving an MBA from Stanford University.
Rising through the organization between 1969 and 1980, Petersen led the Product Planning Department that developed the highly successful Mustang and Thunderbird, the Truck and Recreation Products Operations, Ford’s Diversified Products Operations and the International Automotive Operation. Appointed president in 1980, he was tasked with a difficult situation.
Like all U.S. car makers, Ford had lost substantial sales to foreign manufacturers that were building higher quality, smaller, and more fuel-efficient vehicles. Petersen pushed for better products with stronger customer appeal, emphasizing the development of smaller, more efficient cars.
Petersen’s strong personal leadership was evident in the way he motivated his work force and fostered the team concept in product development and other job disciplines. He was known for directing Ford’s design staff to create vehicles they would be proud to park in their own driveways. The result: The sleek, aerodynamic Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable, which were the two best-selling vehicles in the market throughout the 1980s, helping fuel Ford’s continued success.
Petersen was named chairman of the board and CEO of Ford Motor Company in 1985. He was named the “Most Valuable Person” of 1988 by USA Today and “CEO of the Year” by Chief Executive Magazine in 1989. His success prompted one industry observer to call Donald Petersen “Ford’s most successful boss since the original Henry in his prime.”
Donald Petersen also served on the board of several major corporations in his career including, The Boeing Company, Hewlett-Packard, and Dow Jones Co.