The Whiz Kids

Ford Motor Co. was in shambles following World War II, and was on the road to bankruptcy, until young Henry Ford II hired 10 bright financial managers.

One day late in 1945, Robert McNamara and Charles Bosworth set off in a Ford Model A from Dayton, Ohio, where they had been serving in the U.S. Army Air Force at Wilbur Wright Field. Passing through Toledo and arriving in Dearborn, they had a meeting with Henry Ford II, from whom they — along with eight other members of the Army’s Office of Statistical Control — were seeking postwar jobs.

For all of Ford Motor Co.’s fame, the company was a troubled operation. Young Henry had taken over from his grandfather, the founder and namesake, understanding, as one historian has put it, that “the caliber of the surviving management, engineering, and financial staffs was patchy.” For example, the understaffed accounting department had devised a system of estimating gross expenses by stacking paid invoices on a scale and weighing them. Additionally, new-product planning had to be started from scratch because the company had switched all of its operations over to support the war (which is why only a handful of cars were built between 1942-1945).

“The company really was a mess,” said executive vice president Ernest Breech, who was recruited in 1946 from General Motors to implement reforms. “They had financial statements like a country grocery store.”

Young Henry, then just 28, thought the pay demands of between $8,000 and $15,000 by the military officers before him were not outrageous. The men had proved themselves by making the Air Force waft along on the currents of modern business practices such as cost analysis and price controls. The leader, Charles “Tex” Thornton, a 32-year-old colonel, came up with the idea of bundling the 10 men together for employment as a group. They agreed to a Feb. 1, 1946 starting date in the former Ford administration building on Schaefer Road. Because of their inquisitiveness, the name “Whiz Kids” was coined.

“There’s no question the Whiz Kids brought a fresh academic viewpoint to things,” said former Ford publicist Mike Davis, who arrived in Detroit in 1957. “Their collective brilliance was what really made a difference.” As the “master statisticians” implemented financial controls and cost analysis, the company began to transform. The foremost emblem of its advancements was the 1949 Ford.

The “true savior,” though, according to biographer Robert Lacey, was Breech. He was in the same tradition as Buick’s Harlow H. “Red” Curtice and, later, Frederic Donner, who ran GM. They were small-town boys without fancy pedigrees; their distinctions were earned on merit. While still with GM, Breech became known as “the corporation’s cleanup man” for the turnarounds he orchestrated at the Frigidaire and Bendix divisions.

Staying true to the tenets of General Motor’s great strategist Alfred P. Sloan, Breech instituted decentralized operations and shone a light on Ford’s profitable areas, nurturing them while grooming or eliminating the company’s unprofitable areas.

With advanced practices in place, Ford’s operations presented “a very different personality than existed beforehand,” Davis said, recalling old Henry’s right-hand man, Harry Bennett, whose infamy had grown from using thugs as strikebreakers to maintain control. “There was an entirely new perception.”

Tex Thornton and two other Whiz Kids left the company in 1948. (Thornton eventually led Litton Industries.) The remaining seven provided unprecedented management ability. Arjay Miller advanced to be company president in the mid-1960s, later becoming dean of Stanford’s business school. McNamara went from Dearborn to Washington, D.C., where he served as secretary of defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. The only outright flop was Jack Reith. After distinguishing himself by dumping money-losing Ford of France in 1955, Reith assigned his prestige to the company’s new automotive division: Edsel. db