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Remembering Ernie Rothaar, Chrysler Estimator and Analyst

ernie rothaarWhen I first went into the cost-estimating function I reported to Ernie Rothaar, a Strasburg; Strasburg at one time was German then it was French then it was German then French. I guess they didn’t know what they were, those guys.

Anyway, he had that real nice German accent, you know? He had a lot of trouble with Ws, so Ernie always called me Varren instead of Warren. When he talked, he had this air that people listened to him when he would talk.

He painted word pictures that you could just see this, you know? He painted these pictures so wonderfully. He told me once, “These engineers up there, they don’t know this business that they’re in it.” And you have to stop there and think a minute. They don’t know this business that they’re in it? So he would get angry with them sometimes.

Ernie [Ernest W.] Rothaar was part of that WW II gang, and ran costing at the Evansville War Plant. Then he went to Central Engineering, running cost estimating. even though in-situ at Engineering, my 1964 personnel chart shows Ernie reporting to Bob Anderson, Vice President of Product Planning. Ernie would be 110 today. Many of us miss his “Ernieismins.” His title in 1964 was Director of Product Analysis and Estimating

Once, we were doing some estimate that was going to require a whole new factory somewhere to do something, he said,

We can’t let them do that. We’re going to work against this. Every time some little thing goes on, they want to build a new whole building for everything here.

I’ll tell you what it was like this morning on the way to work. I got up and I looked down at the end of the hall and the bathroom down there, there was light under the door. [He’d paint a picture; you can picture a door with a light under there.]

My son’s in there and in there. Gee whiz, I want to go to work. If I were to think like we do at work, I’d think about building a new bathroom because I couldn’t get in there. But the time I got done designing that new bathroom and thinking about it, I’d look down there and that light wasn’t underneath the door any more because my son had gotten out and now the place was free and I could go in there. It’s just like these guys at work here that they want a new building here for everything.

organizational chart

These guys would paint glorious pictures with their words. Once, we went upstairs to review our turbine estimate with the engineering people at the top of the five-story engineering building. As we got into the entry room, the secretary for one of the vice presidents of the research area said, “Mr. Rothaar, I’m so sorry. He had a more important meeting he had to go to. So we’ll have to reschedule.”

Burton Bouwkamp wrote:

[When I worked with him,] Ernie Rothaar was a 60+ year old authoritative Chrysler executive who seldom smiled. He had a noticeable German accent and considered his job as more important than I think it was. He headed the cost estimating department and reported monthly to top management (the Corporate Product Planning Committee) on the cost estimate status vs. the cost target of future products under development.

Ernie thought that unfavorable product cost reports would be a reflection on himself, so 24 hours before meetings he scrambled to put the best numbers - and assumptions - in his presentation. I had a ringside seat to all this, because although my job in 1962 and 1963 was Chief Engineer of Vehicle Planning, I ran the slide projector at CPPC meetings — because only executives were permitted to be there.

One time in 1962 or 1963, I was on the phone with Ernie discussing the slides and helping him put together the best numbers for the next day's CPPC meeting, and suddenly the phone went silent. Within minutes, an out-of-breath Ernie stormed into my office (he had charged up two flights of stairs) and said, "I resent you accusing me of flavoring the numbers!" (He did!) Our relations were businesslike after that.

When Ernie retired, they used the Director of Product Cost Planning office as a training job for high-potential Finance Staff executives. Most notable was Roger Helder, eventually Corporate Controller.

We went down the elevator, and he was starting to fume. We went into his office and he would prance back and forth and pontificate behind his desk and there was a credenza there I’ll always remember. He would pace up and down. He said, “You see what we just experienced up there?” Then he started talking about when he was a young man in school back in Strasburg, I guess it was during World War I:

All the kids in school were told that they’re going to go down to the railroad station and stand there on the side, because the Kaiser was going to come through and review the troops. When the train would come in, they would all be standing there with their lederhosen on. Everyone had a little German flag. [And you could just picture all these kids standing around there at attention.]

Finally, the big day arrived, and the Kaiser was due at 12:00 noon, so they all got down there at 11:00 and got in their places and were doing a dress rehearsal. Gee whiz, they all were ready for this, so excited and all. 12:00 came and there was no train. They said “Well, look down the tracks and you’ll see the black smoke and you’ll hear the train coming. And so it’ll be here in a couple minutes or so I’m sure.”

So it was a quarter after 12:00 or so, still no train. There’s murmur of excitement and the kids are starting to get itchy, wanting to go to the toilet and all that. People were really getting upset. So after 12:30, suddenly somebody said, “Hey, look! Look way down there miles away! You’ll see the black smoke. The train is coming!”

They all get lined up and there’s a murmur of excitement. Pretty soon they saw the train coming and puffing white smoke out. [He would paint these word pictures you could almost see it, almost visualize it.] They’re all lined up. Here came that train, the Kaiser’s train. That train went through that station at 60 miles an hour, never stopped, went right on through, and it blew the kids off the deck there.

“Now,” he said, “this is what we just experienced up there.”

Highland Park HQ

Ernie would be 100 today [2016]. He lived in Grosse Point Woods, albeit north of 8 Mile Road, but still technically in the Woods.

At Monday morning staff meetings, Dick Ferris, Leo Taffe, Randy Mulvany, Ivan Shadko, Ernie, and I would assemble around Ernie’s conference table. One time, after a months-long job comparing costs of three cars, Ivan Shadko [Car Teardown Department] unveiled a large spiral-bound booklet with many photographs and cost comparisons. He was very proud of this, and distributed it for review and comment.

Ernie looked through this, eventually stopping at Ivan’s cc list [showing everyone who got a copy], which included over 100 department heads. Looking at Ivan, Ernie said “Ivan, you have forgotten one very important person on your cc list.”

Admonished, Ivan pleaded, “Who did I miss?”

With no hesitation, Ernie said, “Ivan, you missed Jesus Christ himself!”

Ivan’s cc list was reduced in size from then on.

The engineering people were always after him to give friendly estimates, as they called it. He said “What I’m going to do here, they keep talking about friendly estimates, I’m going to go and I’m going to buy a whole bunch of pacifiers and some jars of honey. And when they come into these meetings, I’m going to take those pacifiers, I’m going to dip them in honey, and I’m going to pass them out to every one of those engineer guys sitting over there so that they’ll be very happy and get real warm.” There were many of those kinds of things that he would pull.

It was always interesting because every time we’d go to one of these meetings he’d always turn around and ask me “Varren, how close off are we?”

exhaust vents

They were very, very colorful people and they all had a personality, very unusual, and they were always respected because we knew where they came from, setting up these plants during the war, the Dodge Chicago plant where they did the B-29 engines, and the Highland Park engineering plant where they did the Bofors guns and the bullets by the billions, and down in Evansville, and all these places that during the war effort were manned by these guys who were now running engineering and manufacturing.

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