A Family's 100-Year Car Trip
By DANNY HAKIM
TALK about an interesting family reunion.
This weekend, about 80 members of the Ford clan are converging here for the Ford Motor Company's centennial. The party, part public, part private, features music — Beyoncé Knowles, Toby Keith and Harry Connick Jr. are among the performers — vintage Fords and a caravan of about three dozen original Model T's that have traversed America's back roads from California to Michigan for the celebration. And, as at most family get-togethers, pictures will be snapped, including what will be the largest Ford family photograph ever taken.
But times certainly could be better.
The company lost $6.4 billion in 2001 and 2002. Sales are falling even as Ford, General Motors and the Chrysler Group of DaimlerChrysler are spending inordinate amounts of money on zero percent financing and sky-high rebates, and some analysts predict that one of the Big Three will disappear in the next decade under mounting pressure from the likes of Toyota and Honda.
Ford stock has lost about two-thirds of its value in two years, and the company dividend has been cut by two-thirds — sharply reducing the income of family members.
As if that were not enough, environmental groups are planning protests during the party because Ford abandoned a five-year plan to improve the fuel economy of all those Explorers, Expeditions and Excursions rolling off assembly lines.
In some families, such problems might lead to some major fights on the reunion day. But for many members of the Ford family, which has stayed remarkably unified over the years, this is just how business works.
You're up, rolling in profits. You're down, left for dead. Repeat. And again.
"It's so cyclical," said Anne Ford of Manhattan, a great-granddaughter of Henry Ford. "Ford was on top for so long and General Motors was not. Then you turn it around. We've gone through this a couple times, so we're all prepared. But you can't be too prepared."
Her son, Alessandro Uzielli, 36, a film producer and restaurateur who lives in Los Angeles, is not so accustomed to the boom-and-bust cycle.
"Because I'm one of the younger generations, this time has probably been the toughest, as far as I can remember," Mr. Uzielli said. But the centennial is drawing the family closer, he said.
Though most family members no longer live in southeastern Michigan, some still do, and the family name dominates the local landscape, from hospitals and museums to the Detroit Lions. The team is owned by William Clay Ford Sr., one of Henry Ford's three grandsons, and plays at the new Ford Field in Detroit.
And after more than two decades in which outsiders oversaw the business, there's a Ford at the helm of Ford Motor again.
William Clay Ford Jr., 46, the chairman since 1999, added the title of chief executive in October 2001 after the disastrous tenure of Jacques A. Nasser, which included the debacle over rollovers of Firestone-equipped Ford Explorers and a misbegotten attempt to reinvent the company as something beyond just a carmaker.
Among both family members and rank-and-file workers, the latest Ford has a reservoir of good will, and at the company, there are some signs of progress: Ford reported $896 million in net income in the first quarter, and a plan to overhaul the company's car lineup is slowly taking shape. In an era of mercenary corporate chiefs, Mr. Ford is seen as a bringing a paternalistic sense of family to a company some workers call "Ford's."
Anne Ford, who is a first cousin of William Clay Ford Jr., said, "We back Billy and whatever he's wanted to do so far."
"Billy's only been there two years," she added. "It's hard to turn the company around. People have to give him a chance."
Of course, family ties are complicated in the modern world, especially when the family shares ownership of a company that ranks fourth in the Fortune 500. Although Ford is a public company, the roughly 80 family members control 40 percent of the voting rights in the company through 70 million shares of Class B stock, but it is hardly evenly divided. Two surviving members of the third generation, William Clay Ford Sr. and his sister, Josephine F. Ford, own 40 percent of the Class B stock, according to Ford Motor's most recent proxy statement. Lynn F. Alandt, the daughter of Henry Ford's grandson, Benson Ford, who died in 1978, owns an additional 12.7 percent of the Class B stock. Edsel B. Ford II owns 7.1 percent of the Class B and Bill Jr. owns 4.6 percent.
That means that the dividend cuts affect the family, which also owns millions of shares of common stock. William Clay Ford Sr., for instance, would get an annual dividend payment of $37.9 million if the dividend were still $1.20 a share, as it was in the late 1990's. Instead, at 40 cents a share, he gets $12.6 million.
ALTHOUGH the family generally sticks together publicly, there have been tensions. Bill Jr. and Anne Ford's brother, the board member Edsel Ford II, were in a horse race for the chairmanship. Bill Jr. had years of experience in many parts of the company, while Edsel mainly worked with the company's dealers.
It was a real struggle, said the historian Douglas Brinkley, who has written a new book about Ford, "Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company and a Century of Progress" (Viking Press, 2003). "I was at a meeting to plan the centennial, an early planning meeting, when I started this book in '97," he said. "Edsel and Billy were there and they both were nasty to each other; they wouldn't even speak to each other."
The family connections are more complex than they might seem at first glance. The recent rift with Firestone was personally painful for Bill Jr. Because his mother, Martha, is a Firestone, he is a great-grandson of both Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, the founder of the tire company that is now a unit of Bridgestone of Japan. In an interview on his first day as chief executive, Bill Jr. recalled that he was scheduled to be the keynote speaker at a 2000 Firestone family reunion when the Explorer rollover problems surfaced: "I called up my mother and said, `Mom, I can't go,' And she said, `Do you think I shouldn't go?' And I said, `No, no, you should go. People aren't going to expect you to know about Explorer details.' So she went, and my wife and children went."
In many of its dealings, the family zealously guards its privacy. So does the company, which declined to arrange interviews for this article with family members, including those who work for the company or serve on its board. Perhaps the greatest current success of the family, now stretching to six generations from the company's founding, is that it has generally kept disagreements to itself, perhaps partly because there are not many members of the adult generations
For Mr. Ford — Bill Jr. — even catching up with the cousins privately is fraught with legal complexities.
"Obviously, I have to be extremely careful now that we're in this new world of disclosure," he said at a recent press briefing to discuss the centennial. "I can't tell them anything other than what's public."
Charlotte Ford, who is Anne Ford's sister, also lives in Manhattan, where both are well known. Both, too, have written books — Charlotte Ford about etiquette and Anne Ford about raising a daughter with learning disabilities.
Charlotte Ford said Bill Jr. had told the family at a gathering how new securities rules would alter family shop talk.
"He said, `I'm really sorry, but I can only tell you so much,' " she recalled. "I think we all knew that was going to happen, but we were going to try and find out whatever we could anyway and hope that he slipped," she said, kidding. "But he's too good. He never slips."
The Fords stay connected through a family office in Detroit that compiles a quarterly newsletter. Unlike other family newsletters, this one includes economic updates. A few dozen family members meet in Detroit twice a year at the company headquarters and go out afterward for dinner at someone's house or at a country club in the wealthy suburb of Grosse Pointe.
The company also provides a daily news-clipping service for family members. And Bruce Blythe, a former executive for Ford's European operations, acts as a family adviser to some of the Fords, Charlotte said.
"He's like a family adviser not only on financial stuff, but on different directions to take with Ford estates and what we should be doing and thinking about as individual families," she said.
So far, the family has managed the monumental achievement of sustaining a corporation under family control in a brutally competitive industry. In fact, each of the first three generations produced a member who was vital to the company's survival. Now, with Bill Jr., it's the fourth's turn.
The company, of course, started with Henry, a brilliant and eccentric inventor, an erratic businessman with a vitriolic personality who was given to anti-Semitism. He made a big splash by promising, if not fully delivering, a $5-a-day minimum wage in 1914 — roughly double what Ford workers had been receiving, but he would later have his enormous personal security force fight to keep labor unions out of the company.
His chief innovation was the creation of a utilitarian car for the masses, the Model T, but as he grew older he failed to accept that cars had evolved beyond mere modes of transport. Historians have said that his only child, Edsel, worldly where his father was inward, kept the company together as president despite his father.
By the 1920's, Alfred P. Sloan, chief of the conglomerate known as General Motors, was revolutionizing the business, both in accounting and forecasting and making cars that were fashion statements: his G.M. started the industry's first corporate design department.
Edsel Ford believed that his company needed to respond, but Henry spent much time belittling his efforts to push the company forward.
"Without Edsel Ford's ability to take his father's devastating psychological blows, there would be no Ford Motor Company today," Mr. Brinkley said. "He's the one who had to convince his father that people wanted other car colors besides black. He convinced his father that styling did matter, that vehicles were becoming not just utilitarian but also a luxury item. That you had to move up from a Ford, that you couldn't compete with General Motors just selling a Model T. At G.M., you could go from Chevrolet to an Oldsmobile to a Cadillac."
Edsel, who died four years before his father, did create the Mercury division and was able to persuade Henry to acquire Lincoln.
Henry Ford II, the eldest of Edsel's four children, ran Ford from 1945 to 1980 and was almost as titanic a figure in the company's history as his grandfather. Known in the press as Hank the Deuce, he was a jet-setting, thrice-married, gregarious autocrat. In firing the onetime Ford president Lee A. Iacocca — who would go on to lead Chrysler — he famously said, "Sometimes, you just don't like somebody."
Henry Ford II took over a company that estimated its accounts payable by weighing invoices on a scale.
"Ford didn't know until the end of the year how much they had made in profits versus how much they had lost," said Charles Hyde, a history professor at Wayne State University, nor did the company know "the cost of producing a particular model."
So Henry brought in a group of lieutenants known as the Whiz Kids — military bureaucrats including Robert S. McNamara, who later served two presidents as defense secretary during the Vietnam War.
(Bill Ford Jr. has assembled a group of Ford veterans as his lieutenants and says they are not whiz kids but "grumpy old men.")
After Henry stepped down in 1980, the family gave up day-to-day control for more than two decades. But with his autocratic ways also gone, the family, especially the daughters, began to have more discussions about the company and to feel more involved. "He was of the mind-set that women don't belong in the business, that they should be housewives and take care of the children," Charlotte Ford, his daughter, said. "Our generation never really participated in anything."
And, in a contrast to Henry's high visibility, the family began to avoid the kinds of activities that would bring much personal publicity.
"There are no wild and crazy guys in my generation," Charlotte Ford said.
Since its beginnings, much about the business has not changed. "If I look back to when Henry Ford founded this company, we built cars in an assembly plant, we sold them through dealers, we serviced them through dealers, they had an internal combustion engine with four wheels," Bill Jr. said. "It's remarkable how Henry Ford would absolutely recognize this business and this industry."
Environmental groups are complaining about this very lack of evolution this week. Mr. Ford, who has long spoken out about issues like global warming — not a popular topic in Detroit — says he is pained by the attacks.
would be lying to you if I said I wasn't kind of hurt by it, because to be singled out, when for many years I felt I was a lone voice in the wilderness, surprised me," he said. "There have been some business realities I've had to judge over the last couple years where we've had to make some choices," he added. Among the competitive disadvantages he faces are the expenses for 300,000 Ford workers and retirees who receive pension and health care benefits — costs that do not burden foreign automakers like Toyota and Honda, which do not have a base of American retirees and have more positive environmental images.
Russell Long, executive director of the Bluewater Network, a San Francisco group that plans to protest at the centennial parties, said, "It's far more damaging having an alleged environmentalist spouting eco-rhetoric, breaking promises and fighting environmental regulations than dealing with a traditional enemy."
THE family has watched all this from a distance.
Mr. Uzielli lived with his cousin Bill Jr. and Bill's wife, Lisa, in London for six months in the 1980's. At the time, Bill Jr. worked for Ford's European operations, and Mr. Uzielli was a college student.
"It's been such a priority for him," he said of his cousin's environmental streak. "I can only imagine how devastating it must be, given the criticism he's getting."
Mr. Uzielli is part of the fifth generation, which has dozens of members but only one, Elena Ford, working in the company. She is the director of business strategy in International Automotive Operations.
In moving into other lines of work, Mr. Uzielli is more typical of his generation of Fords. In 1998, he produced an independent film, "Bongwater," and has a forthcoming documentary on extreme sports. But when it comes to cars, he sticks to Fords. Or Jaguars, but that's O.K., because Ford owns Jaguar.
"I just bought a 1966 Mustang convertible," he said.
So, he was asked, was '66 the first year of the Mustang?
No, he said, " '64 1/2." — passing a Ford I.Q. test. (The Mustang came out late in its first year, hence the fraction.)
"If everything went to hell in a handbasket, the last thing we'd sell would be our Ford stock," he said. "There are very few families that have as much of a vested interest in the company that bears their name as we do. It races through our blood."
(Photo)William Clay Ford Jr., the chairman, with a GT40 last year. The company is overhauling its stable of cars.
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.....