Chairman, chief executive officer, and president, Ford Motor Company
Born: May 3, 1957, in Dearborn, Michigan.
Education: Princeton University, BA, 1979; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MBA, 1984.
Family: Son of William Clayton Ford Sr. (Ford Motor Company executive) and Martha Firestone Ford; married Lisa Vanderzee; children: four.
Career: Ford Motor Company, 1979–1982, production planning analyst and manager of New York division; 1982–1983, analyst for North American auto operations; 1984–1985, international financial specialist; 1985–1986, planning manager for car production development; 1986–1987, director of commercial vehicles marketing for European division; 1987–1989, managing director of Switzerland division; 1989–1990, manager of Ford truck operations; 1990–1993, director and executive director for business strategy of Ford Auto Group; 1992–1994, general manager of climate control division; 1994–1995, vice president of commercial vehicle tracking center; 1995–1999, chairman of corporate financial committee; 1999–, corporate board chairman; 2001–, president and chief executive officer.
Address: Ford Motor Company, 1 American Road, Dearborn, Michigan 48126-2798; http://www.ford.com/en/default.htm.
■ William Clay Ford Jr. was the great-grandson of Henry Ford Sr. After earning his BA from Princeton University, he began a lifetime of service in the family firm, culminating in his appointment as president and CEO in 2001. A strong environmentalist and progressive manager, he sought to rescue Ford from serious financial trouble arising from the Firestone tire scandal and the perceived mismanagement of his predecessor, the Australian-born Jacques Nasser. Ford, tremendously likable, sought to use his name and extensive experience within the company to revive the firm. "I certainly never sought this job," said Ford, implying his takeover of the family firm was
a reluctant one ( USA Today , October 31, 2001). Ford's comment nevertheless reflected his ongoing concern for the company he had served for almost two decades: "But when I saw what was happening to our company, I thought I could help us."
William Clay Ford Jr. was born into the most American of American car companies. The very name "Ford" for decades had been a synonym for mass production, midwestern conservatism, and the memory of the brilliant but often quirky genius who created much of the American way of life in the 20th century. The number-two carmaker in the world was also, unlike General Motors (GM), a family firm. The company was run by Henry Ford from its foundation until 1945. Edsel Ford, son of the founder and the heir apparent, had died in 1943 but not before fathering three sons and one daughter. The eldest, Henry Ford II, ran the company from 1945 until 1979. The youngest, William Clay Ford Sr., was born in 1925.
Bill Ford Sr. began working for Ford in 1949 and went on to design Lincolns and eventually serve as vice chairman of the Ford Motor Company. He married Martha Parke Firestone, a member of the family whose firm provided Ford's tires for decades. Their son, Bill Ford Jr., was born in 1957.
Bill Ford Jr. was a product of his generation, his family, and the company itself. The culture of Ford, like its founder, was an unusual mixture of the conservative and the dynamic. Henry Ford was a cultural conservative who hated unions, dabbled in anti-Semitism, promoted classic midwestern values, and in the end almost destroyed his company through his rigid management style. On the other hand, he was also a pacifist and a cultural revolutionary who inaugurated the automobile age and transformed the world far more than many political leaders did. Upon the founder's death, Bill's uncle, Henry Ford II, encouraged the innovative, revolutionary side of the company culture. He hired and promoted the liberal Democrat Robert McNamara in the 1950s; he updated the firm's finances and created the popular Falcon model. In the 1960s, as Bill was growing up in Dearborn, Lee Iacocca showed how to make a stylish popular car, the Mustang, and how to turn it into a marketing triumph for Ford.
Born at the end of the baby–boom generation, Bill Ford came of age as Ralph Nader and other consumer advocates were causing millions of people to question the safety of American cars and the social conscience of American business. This milieu greatly influenced the outlook of the young Ford as he entered adulthood and launched his career. Ford's senior thesis at Princeton, "Henry Ford and Labor: A Reappraisal," suggested that even then he was formulating a progressive business philosophy.
Bill Ford began working for the Ford Motor Company as a production analyst. When Ford joined the company in 1979, the firm was no longer run by a member of the family. Bill's uncle, Henry Ford II, stepped down a matter of days before Bill joined the payroll. Iacocca, the heir apparent, departed for Chrysler. A series of other leaders followed as chairman over the next two decades: Philip Caldwell, Harold Poling, Philip Baron Jr., and finally, in 1993, Alex Trotman.
Bill Ford entered the family firm at a time when Detroit's golden decade of the 1960s had given way to the lean years of the 1970s and 1980s. The American automobile industry was struck first by the rise in oil prices and next by the rapid surge in popularity of Japanese imports. Hundreds of thousands of Bill Ford's generational peers deserted their customer loyalty to Ford to purchase fuel-efficient Toyotas and Hondas.
Bill Ford served as an analyst, a financial specialist, and a planning manager between 1979 and 1984. After earning his MBA at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1984, he served in other midlevel positions, usually as a planning manager in Europe, in the area of truck operations, and finally in climate control, an area near to his heart.
Ford became a director in 1988 and took on his first major post as chairman of the finance committee in 1995. The 1990s were better years for the company, which was then under the chairmanship of Alex Trotman. Ford's sport utility vehicles (SUVs) from 1993 onward spearheaded a return to profitability. Bill Ford once again witnessed the pattern that had characterized Ford's company history. Long years of unrewarding sales would be ended by a breakthrough in which a popular car or vehicle would create a sensation and permit Ford to reap both popularity and profit. The Thunderbird, the Falcon, the Mustang, and then the Explorer and the Taurus fit the pattern. By 1998 Ford was gleaning outstanding profits.
After serving for many years in a score of middle-management positions, Ford was tired of working for the company. He continued to chair the financial committee but devoted most of his time to running the Detroit Lions football team. In 1999, however, Trotman retired, and Ford took his place as chairman. The positions of president and CEO were assumed by Jacques Nasser.
Both Bill Ford and the company entertained high hopes for Nasser, his personal choice for CEO. The talented Lebanese Australian was the perfect image of the new Ford global manager. His goal, which Bill Ford shared, was to overtake GM. Nasser's expected long tenure lasted less than two years, however. Seeking to emulate Jack Welch of General Electric, Nasser purchased Volvo and other companies. He hired women and minorities and sought to shake up the culture of one of the most traditional companies in the United States. He ended job security, hired many outside executives, and brought in a grading system for employees. With Ford earning $7 billion in 1998 versus only $9.7 billion for GM and Chrysler combined, Nasser was supremely confident, despite his growing unpopularity as a manager. The Nasser plan might well have succeeded had it not been for the Firestone disaster.
In 2000 a number of mysterious accidents involving Ford Explorer SUVs began occurring. The vehicles were tipping and causing fatalities. Ultimately, investigators determined that the culprit was the Firestone tires that were standard on all Ford Explorers; they were exploding and causing the SUVs to spin out of control. Nasser sought to contain the criticism with a public relations campaign, but it was not enough to restore public confidence in the company. The long relationship between Ford and Firestone ended, and Ford's stock, credibility, and reputation sank. Between 2001 and 2002 the company lost $6.4 billion. In October 2001 Nasser resigned as CEO, and Bill Ford took the helm.
When Bill Ford took the company mantle at age 45, many felt that he was the only person who could rescue the fourth-largest company in the world from a possible meltdown. He was, after all, a Ford. Unlike Nasser, he was popular. He knew the company and had served it for 20 years in almost a score of positions. Some observers, however, were skeptical. Bill Ford had a long résumé, but it was filled with middle-management positions. How much experience did he have in the overall executive direction of a company, especially a giant such as Ford?
Ford's management style emerged as one of his major assets. Nasser trod upon thousands of toes, but Ford sought to rally everyone around his person. The first Ford to run the company in more than 20 years, he not only invoked the Ford brand, he was part of that brand. Bill Ford knew his company and recognized that Ford was not General Electric. One could prune the Detroit-based midwestern Ford culture, but it could not be jettisoned. From the moment he took over, Ford recognized that the only course for the company was to return to its roots. "We need to get our focus back on the basics of our business," Ford said in his first public remarks as CEO, which were quoted by Micheline Maynard in The End of Detroit . Those basics, said Ford, were "building great cars and trucks."
There was a creative tension in Bill Ford between the profit-minded great-grandson of Henry Ford and the socially conscious environmentalist. He sought to mix realism and idealism. Unlike his critics Ford saw no hypocrisy or contradiction in being a green automaker. In one sense, he derived his ultimate inspiration from the founder himself. In the new century being friendly to the environment was, in the long term, being competitive. Hydrogen fuel cells, not hydrocarbon engines, were the wave of the future, and the Japanese were already miles ahead of Ford in the application of this technology.
Highly symbolic of Bill Ford's vision was his renovation of the River Rouge plant. This giant Dearborn facility had once turned out thousands of tanks and airplanes in war and thousands of Fords, Lincolns, and Ford trucks in peacetime. Much of River Rouge was a decaying ruin until Bill Ford began erecting a totally new manufacturing complex, which was scheduled to open in 2004. The clean, modern factory was to be surrounded by a huge garden and a series of wetlands. The facility itself was heated by solar panels.
Bill Ford's environmentalism naturally included the newest Ford vehicles, the design of which he had long overseen. In early 2001 he unveiled the Ford Escape, a hybrid SUV. Environmentalists were instantly upset. Ford, they said, was betraying them by even making SUVs. Ford responded by reminding them that he was in the business of creating jobs, shareholder profits, and vehicles. The environment was important, but cars and even SUVs fit into it.
Despite the debut of the Escape, the company stock in 2002 lost a full 60 percent of its value. Ford knew he would have to make some very painful decisions. He visited plants and made speeches, playing upon his name and family reputation. The Toronto Sun quoted him saying, "I bleed Ford blue" (June 15, 2002). Ford cut 22,000 people from the payroll, slashed $3 billion in costs, closed five plants in the United States, and cut back Ford's operations in Europe. As he furloughed workers, sold off businesses, and closed plants, he appealed to the company brand and family reputation to help soften the pain. Already living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, instead of the traditional Grosse Pointe, Michigan, mansion, Ford even gave up his own salary.
Being a mixture of the old and the new allowed Bill Ford to step into the roles of company savior, healer, and surgeon. Outside his office were huge pictures of his great-grandfather, and yet the man displaying them was a black belt in the Korean martial art of tae kwon do, an environmentalist, a guitar player, and a student of Buddha. The great-grandson of one of America's fiercest union-busters was one of its most pro-employee and even pro-union managers. He refused to tamper with Ford's pensions, even though maintaining them was very expensive to the company. Ford differed from his ancestor in another way. He was a listener, not an autocrat. According to the Toronto Sun , he insisted, "I listen a lot. I encourage a lot. This company is too big for any person to run. I don't care who you are" (June 15, 2002).
By the beginning of 2004 Bill Ford boasted of his company's partial recovery. Ford's profits for 2004 were forecast at approximately $3.5 to $3.8 billion. Recalls of vehicles were down by 70 percent. The company, however, was still in serious danger. Early in 2003 Ford was overtaken by Toyota in worldwide car sales for the first time. The Ford pension system was $5 to $6 billion in debt, and Standard and Poor's in the autumn of 2003 relegated Ford's debt to one step above junk bond status. In Britain even Vauxhall now sold more fleet cars than Ford.
Ford faced very grave problems in Europe. Though highly profitable in the 1970s, Ford of Europe was losing tens of millions of dollars annually. Ford designs simply had little appeal to style-conscious Germans and Italians, who shunned the Ford Fusion and Fiesta. The Ford Focus still sold, but new designs were needed. "We need to give more sex appeal to our European products," Ford commented to the Daily Telegraph (January 17, 2004). Not only were unappealing designs hurting Ford's global image, but the company was also tarnished by a culture in which labor and management fought continually and various Ford Europe branches sought to undermine one another.
The Ford Motor Company was doing better under Bill Ford's leadership, but many of the objectives he set for the company were being eroded in Dearborn by the same culture of infighting that weakened Ford in Europe. Managers, unions, and various departments had not yet learned to work together as they did in Japan. Ford managers, too, still tended to live in denial of the Japanese challenge. Unlike Bill Ford, who quietly set modest expectations and then hoped to exceed them, many company managers still boasted of Ford's greatness. Perhaps a new technique here or there, they felt, might solve the problem and restore Ford's brand and position. While Ford could produce a winning car such as the Taurus, it often could not capitalize on the abilities of its designers owing to a culture of overconfidence, internal competition, and short-term thinking.
Although he had led the company to partial recovery, Ford recognized that investors needed to be assured that he could deliver steady growth in the future instead of the boom-and-bust cycle that was well entrenched in Ford's history. The key to Bill Ford's success as a manager and to the future of his company lay in his ability to transform the culture into one in which quality, customer satisfaction, and cooperation were paramount.
By the middle of 2003 Bill Ford had steadied his company, which showed first-quarter earnings of almost $900 million, profits of $500 million, and a market share rebounding to 21.2 percent. Ford now had time to think about the long-term strategy to meet the deadly challenge of Toyota. Bill Ford borrowed a page from company history. When his uncle, Henry Ford II, faced financial meltdown and a triumphant GM in 1946, he brought in the brightest thinkers to reinvent the whole Ford strategy. Robert McNamara and other young "Whiz Kids," as they were called, restructured Ford's accounting and management systems and pioneered the successful Falcon compact. Bill Ford commissioned his chief financial officer, Allan Gilmour, to recruit a comparable team.
Bill Ford recognized that management is not a one-man show. The magnitude of the challenge facing the Ford Motor Company called for the most qualified team possible, one that included the next generation of Ford leaders. Ford wondered aloud in Forbes "where the world's going to be in 10 or 20 years." He then continued, "Are we aligned to get there?" (June 23, 2003). The world Ford envisioned would be one in which Toyota might overtake General Motors, hybrids would dominate, China would be an important market, and consumers would demand environmentally sustainable, fuel-efficient vehicles.
The Ford Motor Company of the future would depend less upon Mercury and Lincoln and more upon Volvo, Jaguar, and Land Rover. All automakers were facing saturated markets in North America and perhaps Europe. Only through joint ventures could they compete, so that even Ford and GM would have to share common auto frameworks to compete with Japan. Ford knew he faced a gargantuan challenge in competing with Japan, for Toyota and Honda were already several years ahead in hybrid car technology (cars that combined electric batteries with an internal combustion engine). Critical as this area was for Ford, the need to extricate the company from its financial hole had taken its toll on the research and development of Ford hydrogen cars. Still, Bill Ford planned to have a hybrid Escape SUV and a Futura sedan on the road by 2004 and 2005.
Ford set a turnaround goal of making $7 billion in profits by 2007. His idealism, very much alive, was tempered by realism. He remained an environmentalist, but he recognized that the solvency of Ford depended upon continued market share and profits. When he scaled back the target of a 25 percent increase in fuel efficiency, many environmentalists felt betrayed, until Bill Ford reminded them that without staying in business, Ford could do little for anyone's environment. As long as gasoline was cheaper than bottled water in the United States, Americans would still want gas-guzzlers, and there was little Ford could do except make the best and safest ones they could. If Americans did not buy them from Ford, they would buy them from Toyota. In the meantime, Ford would have to perfect its own flexible vehicle assembly system, which would cut assembly costs by one-tenth and changeover costs by one-half, helping Ford to compete with Toyota and save as much as $2 billion annually. The flashy new Futura and nine other models could then be turned out with the same chassis on the same line.
As he moved to his long-term goal of company renewal and unveiled aggressive new ads featuring a talking Ford Focus badgering customers to buy it, Bill Ford recognized that he faced an uphill battle, but he could take comfort in having his family and his company's history of surprises behind him.
See also entry on Ford Motor Company in International Directory of Company Histories .
"Bill Ford Jr.—Calling the Boss to Account," Minneapolis Star Tribune , February 18, 2004.
Brinkley, Douglas, Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress, 1903–2003 , New York: Viking Press, 2003.
Cox, James, and David Kiley, "Ford Jr. Takes on Role He Was Born to Play," USA Today , October 31, 2001.
English, Andrew, "Ford's Rocky Road to Recovery," Daily Telegraph , January 17, 2004.
Hakim, Danny, "Ford Heir Says Nation's Affair with the Car Has Lost Its Zip," New York Times , August 8, 2002.
Keller, Maryann, Collision: GM, Toyota, Volkswagen and the Race to Own the 21st Century , New York: Currency Doubleday, 1993.
Lacey, Robert, Ford: The Men and the Machine , New York: Ballantine Books, 1986.
Maynard, Micheline, The End of Detroit: How the Big Three Lost Their Grip on the American Car Market , New York: Currency Doubleday, 2003.
Muller, Joann, "Bill Ford's Next Act," Forbes , June 23, 2003, pp. 74–80.
Stein, Jason, "William Clayton Ford, Jr.," Toronto Sun , June 15, 2002.
Truby, Mark, "Bill Ford Jr. Carries on Family Traditions," Detroit News , June 9, 2003.
—David Charles Lewis