Ford, William Clay, Jr.

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Ford, William Clay, Jr.

Ford Motor Company


On October 30, 2001, amid cheers from workers who surged to their feet at the announcement, William Clay "Bill" Ford, Jr. introduced himself as the new chief executive officer (CEO) of the automotive giant, Ford Motor Company. For almost two decades, there was no Ford running the company. After Henry Ford II stepped down as chairman in 1979, only professional managers were allowed into the top position. Finally, in 1998, the company declared that chairman Alex Trotman would step down a year earlier than expected to let Bill Ford, Jr., assume control, with Jacques "Jac" Nasser functioning as president and CEO. Nasser was ousted in 2001, following a 58 percent stock tumble, pricey foreign investments, and lawsuits that ended the nearly century–old relationship between Ford and Firestone Tire Company.

Personal Life

Bill Ford was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1957. He was the only son in a family of four children born to William Clay Ford, Sr. and Martha Park Firestone Ford. His father was the grandson of auto pioneer Henry Ford, and his mother was an heiress to the Firestone tire fortune. While other branches of the Ford clan were marred by unstable family relationships, Ford enjoyed a calm upbringing in a home that was as down–to–earth as possible, given the family's household name and incredible wealth. In fact, Ford was often shuttled to less affluent areas of town to play hockey. He excelled at sports, received good grades, and maintained a relatively normal existence without bodyguards or chauffeurs. Though he did have a nanny, his mother was around at all times. Later, Ford attended the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut, where he gained a reputation as a fierce soccer competitor. He became an avid football fan, no doubt because his father bought the Detroit Lions in 1964. After high school, Ford attended Princeton University, where he earned a bachelor of arts in political science and wrote his senior thesis on labor relations at Ford. Later, he went back to school to obtain a master of science in management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1984.

Ford married a fellow Princeton student, Lisa Vanderzee, and they have two daughters and two sons. He says since he was not forced into working in the business, he will let his children make their own choices as well regarding their careers. The family lives in Grosse Pointe Farms, an upscale suburb of Detroit, where Ford can be spotted in–line skating through the quiet streets or getting ready for a fly fishing trip. As a nature lover, he likes camping, hiking, and skiing with his family, and he also enjoys tae kwon do, hockey, tennis, coaching soccer, and collecting Civil War documents. He has pledged that his job will not detract from his personal life and has no plans to cut down his involvement with his children. Ford is also a vegetarian who practices alternative healing methods such as acupuncture and herbal remedies, and he does not often drink alcohol. In addition to everything else, Ford is the chairman of the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, and the vice–chairman and a member of the board of the Detroit Greater Downtown Partnership Inc. Though he seems to have as ideal a life as possible, balancing family, hobbies, a football team, and one of the world's largest corporations, Ford admits there are some drawbacks to carrying around his legendary surname. "Whenever I'm at a party," he told BusinessWeek, "people are always telling me either to get a new quarterback or make the Taurus back seat bigger."

In November 2001, the Swedish–American Chamber of Commerce announced that Ford would be awarded the 15th annual prestigious Lucia Award in recognition of his efforts to promote world peace through trade.

Career Details

After college, Ford went to work at the family business, starting as a financial analyst and eventually rotating through eleven jobs in his first ten years with the firm. His father wanted him to have a well–rounded education about the business in case he would someday rise to the top. The senior Ford involved his 25-year-old son in labor negotiations because he felt it was an important element in running the firm. Ford also worked in product planning and advanced vehicle development, helping to launch the first Ford Escort and Mercury Lynx, and also led the marketing efforts for Ford in the New YorkNew Jersey area. In 1986, he worked with Ford of Europe as director of commercial vehicle marketing. The following year, he ran Ford of Switzerland as managing director, succeeding in breathing life into what was previously a sagging enterprise. He was named vice president of Ford Truck Operations in 1988, and in 1990 he became director of business strategy for automotive operations. He has also served as general manager of the climate control division. In 1988, Ford joined the board of directors and eventually led two essential committees, finance and environment/public policy. By the mid–1990s, his name was being considered to take over for Alex Trotman, who had been with Ford since the mid–1950s and held the chairman and CEO positions since 1993.

Chronology: William Clay Ford, Jr.

1957: Born in Detroit, Michigan.

1979: Received a B.A. degree from Princeton University.

1984: Earned a M.S. degree at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

1986: Named director of commercial vehicle marketing, Ford Europe.

1988: Became vice president of Ford Truck Operations.

1990: Promoted to director of Business Strategy, Automotive Operations.

1995: Took over the running of Detroit Lions football team from his father.

1999: Named chairman of Ford Motor Company.

2000: Defended Ford Motor Company as tires, and a century–old partnership with Firestone Tire Company, fell apart.

2001: Added duties of chief executive officer to his responsibilities.

Speculation simmered for years that either Ford or his cousin, Edsel Ford II, were in line to become the next leader. However, it came to a full boil in 1996 when major business publications proclaimed that Ford would be the next chairman of the board, even if he would not be in charge of day–to–day operations per se.

Though his name was probably one reason that, at age 41, he was promoted to lead the world's second–largest industrial firm, Ford still had to work his way up from the bottom and prove his mettle. "I recognize that there are those who think this job was handed to me," Ford remarked to BusinessWeek. "But I was under the microscope every step of the way. I had to have drive and ambition because people were looking for me to fail." Ford's immediate mission, in addition to making sure the company remained economically competitive, was to infuse environmental activism into the number two car corporation. He had made it no secret that he hoped to combine his personal devotion to environmental issues with his new position, thereby producing cleaner, more efficient vehicles.

Ford was also becoming involved with his father's enterprise, the Detroit Lions football team. He served as treasurer from 1980 to 1995, then he became vice chairman and assumed responsibility for most of the operations. At his first NFL owners' meeting, he stood up to the threat of having the Lions' Thanksgiving game taken away and given to a better team (they had not won a championship since 1957). His emotional defense preserved the tradition and laid waste to his prior reputation as being somewhat meek. Furthermore, he took immediate steps to give the team a needed lift. First, he fired head coach Wayne Fontes and hired Bobby Ross, formerly of the San Diego Chargers. He then restructured an outdated ticket policy and stepped up marketing efforts. A new web site and weekly radio and television shows added to the facelift. Most importantly, he lobbied to bring the Detroit Lions back to Detroit. For two decades, the team played at the Silverdome, a sports arena located in suburban Pontiac. Crowds had dwindled throughout the years, and the franchise received one of the worst licensing deals in the league with stadium owners: the Lions obtained no revenue from concessions, suites, or parking. With a receptive mayor, Dennis Archer, in office in Detroit and a new baseball stadium being built for Detroit Tigers' owner Mike Illitch, Ford seized the opportunity to contribute to civic pride and arrange a better deal. Ford negotiated to build a new 70,000–seat domed stadium in downtown Detroit next to the new ballpark, with the Ford family and corporate sponsors contributing about half the building costs and government agencies adding the rest.

Observers wondered if Ford's success with the football team would translate to running a gigantic corporation. When mulling over the possibility that Ford would be taking the reins of the automaker, some commentators predicted that it would be a boon for the company. Though Trotman was a respected leader, some thought Ford would soothe stockholders because he has a highly personal stake in the corporation. Not just a "company man," Ford is a part of the firm's history, as is his cousin, Edsel Ford II, who had maintained even closer ties. Edsel Ford II's father was head of Ford for three decades, and many suspected that he would be the successor once Trotman left. Edsel has had a long career at Ford and sits on the board as president of credit operations. Insiders considered Bill Ford a superior choice, due to his diplomacy and previous involvement with the board.

However, some directors were wary. Ford was still enmeshed in managing the Lions and raising four young children, and it was suggested that he would not have the time needed to devote to the job. Others were concerned that the appointment would further inflate the family's influence to the dismay of the rest of the stockholders. The family, however, had the ultimate say on the decision to elevate Ford to the top role. Even though Henry Ford II had stated firmly, "There are no crown princes in the Ford Motor Co.," according to Newsweek, the family controlled 40 percent of the voting stock and held three positions on the board, giving it enough clout to make certain things happen.

In the fall of 1998, Ford Motor Company announced that Bill Ford would become the new chairman, effective January 1, 1999, when Trotman retired a year earlier than expected. Although Ford would have the final word on company decisions, many were pleased that Jacques Nasser, former head of global auto operations, would be taking over the day–to–day management of the corporation as president and CEO. This dual management is common in Europe and Asia, but most American firms still rely on one person to hold the titles of chairman and CEO. Ford, however, welcomed the concept, explaining in a press conference, "I will lead the board and Jac will lead the company. This will be a partnership." Nasser was results–oriented, with a history of slashing costs more than $4 billion in 1997 and the first half of 1998. The two had worked together before; Ford worked under Nasser in the 1980s, when he was a financial analyst in charge of Venezuela and Nasser was head of finance for Latin America and Asia.

Ford's main goal as chairman was to maintain the company's solid financial record and continue to cut costs and narrow the gap between it and the number one automaker, General Motors. Ford also needed to remain focused on increasing European sales, its largest market outside of the United States. The Asian–Pacific markets were expected to show strong growth as well, and it was essential that Ford Motor Company be competitive there. Ford's other priorities included his long–standing commitment to environmental issues and the production of a high–selling environmentally–friendly vehicle.

Of course, being responsible for keeping the company in business, Ford also saw economic opportunities in being an Earth–friendly company. He predicted an unprecedented ballooning of consumers seeking environmentally sound products in the twenty–first century, and he said that companies that foresee this shift and address it will prosper, while laggards will fail. But his attention to marketing did not drive his activism. "There's no conflict between doing the right thing and the bottom line," Ford noted in Automotive News. "I don't see a conflict between shareholder value, customer value and social value." Ford also stated that his great–grandfather, Henry Ford, had always wanted to benefit the world and not adversely affect it, but that the company had, unfortunately, gradually moved away from that. Ford was not afraid to recognize the company's failures in environmentalism. In May of 2000, Ford made an unprecedented statement at Ford's annual shareholder meeting, admitting to the fact that Ford's sport utility vehicles (SUVs) are environmentally unsound. He went further by saying that the company's SUVs should emit no more pollutants than its cars.

Later that year, Ford had to defend his company in the midst of a massive tire recall. In the summer of 2000, Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone jointly set about to recall 6.5 million tires suspected of contributing to vehicle rollovers. Although Ford initially stated that the other Firestone tires with which its vehicles were equipped were safe, it later announced that it had evidence that there were problems on some of those tire models as well. In 2001, Ford announced that it would spend $3 billion to replace all 13 million Firestone Wilderness AT tires on Ford Explorers, Expedition SUVs, and F–150 and Ranger pickups. Meanwhile, Firestone unilaterally announced that it would no longer sell tires to the automobile manufacturer, thus ending a century–long partnership between the two companies. As the great–grandson of both Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, founder of Firestone Tire Company, Bill Ford understandably called the decision "a painful one."

Social and Economic Impact

It is unusual to think of an automobile baron as an environmentalist, but Ford is just that. As the proud owner of a Ford Ranger electric truck, he volunteered in Earth Day events and became involved with clean–water projects while a teenager. Later, he began reading about green issues and studied the works of nature authors Edward Abbey and Rachel Carson.

Ford is committed to the idea that a company can make things without damaging people or the planet. To that end, he seeks to build worker–friendly, environmentally responsible factories that produce emissions–free cars. He is determined, for example, to eliminate the carbon–dioxide–producing internal–combustion engine by the time he vacates the chairman's office. In 2001, the company announced that it would join with environmental groups to call for consumer tax credits to help subsidize sales of high–mileage hybrid–fuel vehicles, which remain costly to produce. Ford, meanwhile, will begin selling a hybrid–fuel version of its small SUV, the Escape, in 2003.

Sources of Information

Contact at: Ford Motor Company
One American Rd.
Dearborn, MI 48126–2798
Business Phone: (313) 845–8540


"Ford on Ford. . . ." PR Newswire, 3 December 2001.

Kerwin, Kathleen, and Joann Muller. "Bill Takes the Wheel." Business Week, 12 November 2001.

"Lions' History." Detroit Lions web site. Available at

Wheat, Alynda. "The Top 10 Business Stories." Fortune, 24 December 2001.

"William Clay Ford, Jr." Newsmakers, issue 1. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 1999.

"William Clay Ford, Jr. to Receive Swedish–American Chamber of Commerce's 15th Annual Lucia Award. . . ." Business Wire, 19 November 2001.

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Ford, William Clay, Jr.

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