Bill Ford

views updated Jun 27 2018

Bill Ford

For almost two decades, there was no Ford running Ford Motor 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 William Clay "Bill" Ford, Jr. (born 1957), assume control, with Jacques "Jac" Nasser functioning as president and chief executive officer.

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 Keith Naughton in Business Week. "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. In addition to his career at the automaker, Ford in 1995 took charge of running the Detroit Lions football team for his father, who bought the team in 1964.

A Normal Childhood

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 1963. 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.

Learned the Automobile Business

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 son in labor negotiations when he was only 25 years old 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 York-New 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 from Alex Trotman, who had been with Ford since the mid-1950s and held the chairman and CEO positions since 1993.

Managed a Football Team

Ford was also becoming involved with his father's enterprise, the Detroit Lions football team. He served as treasurer from 1980 to 1995, then 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 have 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 stock holders 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. However, Alex Taylor III reported in Fortune that 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, though, 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 Jolie Solomon and Daniel McGinn in Newsweek, the family does control 40 percent of the voting stock and holds three positions on the board, giving it enough clout to make certain things happen.

A New Chairman

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," according to Mary Connelly in Automotive News. Nasser made his name as a "hard-charging Australian-bred task-master who expects results," as Connelly put it, with a history of slashing costs more than $4 billion in 1997 and the first half of 1998. 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. "We have a running start on this," Ford noted, according to Connelly. "We've known each other a long time. We find we are in sync more than we are not."

Ford's main goal in his new seat will be to maintain the company's solid financial record, continuing to cut costs and narrow the gap between it and the number one automaker, General Motors. Ford also needs to remain focused on increasing European sales, its largest market outside of the United States. The Asian-Pacific markets are also supposed to show strong growth as well, and it is essential that Ford Motor Company be competitive there. However, it appeared that Ford's other priorities included his longstanding commitment to environmental issues and vow to produce a high-selling environmentally-friendly vehicle. It is unusual to think of an automobile baron as an environmentalist, but Ford is just that. 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.

Of course, being responsible for keeping the company in business, Ford also sees economic opportunities in being an Earth-friendly company. He predicts an unprecedented ballooning of consumers seeking environmentally sound products in the twenty-first century, and said that companies that foresee this shift and address it will prosper, while laggards will fail. But his attention to marketing does not drive his activism. "There's no conflict between doing the right thing and the bottom line," Ford noted to Mary Connelly 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 gradually moved away from that. He remarked to Joseph R. Szczesny in Time, "I can remember when the board asked me to stop associating with the environmentalists. I said, 'Absolutely no."' He believes his leadership will provoke the company to build cleaner-running vehicles.

Family Life

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 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 Naughton in Business Week, "people are always telling me either to get a new quarterback or make the Taurus back seat bigger."

Further Reading

Automotive News, September 14, 1998, p. 1; September 28, 1998, p.

Business Week, September 28, 1998, p. 96.

Economist, September 19, 1998, pp. 9, 82.

Fortune, October 14, 1996, p. 26; October 12, 1998, p. 34.

Gannett News Service, September 21, 1998.

Los Angeles Times, September 12, 1998, p. D1; September 24, 1998, p. D1.

Newsday, December 12, 1997, p. A46.

Newsweek, October 7, 1996, p. 56.

Time, December 8, 1997, p. 74.

Time International, March 2, 1998, p. 42.

USA Today, December 2, 1997, 4B; September 14, 1998, p1B.

Ward's Auto World, October 1, 1994, p. 25.

"Lions' History," Detroit Lions web site, (October 27, 1998). □