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CEO Bill Ford Jr. takes on his critics,He dismisses reluctant leader label

By Mark Truby / The Detroit News
Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News

DEARBORN -- As Ford Motor Co. kicked off its centennial celebration Thursday, Chairman and CEO Bill Ford Jr. defended the company's financial health, environmental record and his commitment to lead Ford into the future.

Speaking at the storied Rouge complex's new visitors center, the great-grandson of Henry Ford addressed critics head-on, signaling his determination to keep negative issues from overshadowing the automaker's five-day birthday bash.

Bill Ford said Ford Motor -- which lost $6.4 billion in 2001 and 2002 before booking an $896 million profit in the first quarter -- is on track to become solidly profitable again by mid-decade.

"We are back on firm footing," he said in a brief news conference. "I feel very good about where we are today and where we are headed. I am very fired up about the results we are seeing and the products we have coming."

Citing the company's $26 billion cash stockpile, he dismissed speculation from some Wall Street analysts that steep pension and health care obligations, combined with steady market share losses, could drag Ford Motor into bankruptcy in the coming years.

"That's crazy," Bill Ford said. "If you look at our balance sheet, we are perhaps one of the most liquid companies in the world."

He also addressed persistent questions about his commitment to lead the automaker into its second century, which intensified this week after Newsweek magazine published an article portraying him as deeply conflicted about running Ford Motor.

"This reluctant CEO stuff is for the birds," he said. "It's a privilege and an honor to run this company. There is nothing I would rather be doing. I could have done anything I wanted with my life."

The 46-year-old father of four conceded that the loss of privacy -- particularly after he starred in a series of national TV ads -- has been difficult. Overall, though, "the good outweighs the bad," he said.

Easygoing and approachable, Bill Ford clearly is still adjusting to the rough-and-tumble life as CEO of one of the world's largest and most visible companies during a period of unprecedented challenges.

"He got the job he always wanted," said David Cole, head of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor. "He just got it 10 years earlier than he probably wanted it."

When Bill Ford ousted CEO Jacques Nasser and assumed control of the automaker 20 months ago, Ford Motor was losing billions of dollars, employees were demoralized and the quality of its cars and trucks were suffering.

Despite announcing plans in January 2002 to close five factories and cut 21,000 jobs, Bill Ford remains very popular with employees and dealers. But his high profile as a Ford family scion has made him a easy target for critics who question his toughness and qualifications.

This week, as 100,000 people gather in Dearborn to ride down memory lane with Ford Motor, environmentalists are using the event's visibility to criticize Bill Ford.

Some activists claim Bill Ford has reneged on a promise to run Ford in an environmentally responsible way, pointing to the company's reliance on SUVs and a failure to significantly improve the fuel economy of its car and truck fleet.

The San Francisco-based Bluewater Network, for example, is in Dearborn this week to launch an advertising campaign with the headline "Bill Ford or Pinocchio?" with pictures of Bill Ford with a long nose.

Bill Ford shot back Thursday, saying he and the company remain committed to the environment and that some critics appear to be more interested in media attention than seeking solutions.

"Ford Motor is a well-known company, and I guess I am a well-known person now," Bill Ford said. "Some people would rather garner headlines than work with us."

The protesters were nowhere to be found when Bill Ford drove the centennial grounds outside Ford headquarters Thursday afternoon. Several dozen supporters, though, gathered around his Lincoln Navigator.

As he drove away, a Ford loyalist shouted, "Keep up the good work!"

(Photo)Ford Chairman and CEO Bill Ford Jr. signs autographs after kicking off the centennial celebration. "It's a privilege and an honor to run this company," he said.

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My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.

My next Ford.....
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