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Ford patriarch reflects on legacy, ponders future

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

'There's great family pride in the name Ford'

By Daniel Howes / The Detroit News
John T. Greilick / The Detroit News

DEARBORN--He is the patriarch of a pre-eminent American family, one of just two living links to Ford Motor Co. founder Henry Ford.

He watched his grandfather drop old razor blades into rusty water, then mix the water with lanolin to make hair tonic. Barely 10 years old, his grandfather taught him to drive on the roads of Dearborn and rural Wayne County, where a police officer stopped the pair one Sunday morning.

"He played it smart," William Clay Ford, now 78, said of the officer. "He didn't give a ticket or anything. The only repercussions were my grandmother to him. Her directions to me were, 'Billy, go to your room.' I missed the fireworks."

In a rare interview Monday with The Detroit News, in the living room of the house where Henry Ford was born, Bill Ford Sr. reminisced not about his beloved Detroit Lions, but about Henry Ford, his legacy and the company he founded 100 years ago next month.

Bill Ford Sr. talked about his yen for design, symbolized in the '55 Lincoln Continental Mark II he called a "labor of love" and his strong support for Jaguar.

With his son Bill Ford Jr. by his side, he also assessed what it means to once again have a Ford running Ford Motor after nearly 20 years of professional CEOs.

"The progression through the family is wonderful," Bill Ford Sr. said.

"I'm delighted that Billy's got the chairmanship and CEO," Bill Ford Sr. said. "It is, to me, a great satisfaction that it's back in the family again and that there's such an interest being shown."

"I don't think it's a requirement" for a Ford to run the automaker, he said. "It's great when it happens if the candidate is qualified and I think Billy is. He's had a lot of good experience and is measuring up to the job."

It is clear, however, that the father isn't about to tell the son how to do that job. The epicenter of Ford family power on the automaker's board until his son ascended to chairman in 1999, Bill Ford Sr. is keenly aware of the limits he should respect when it comes to running the business from the board room.

Ford's design bosses, including today's J Mays, acknowledge his interest in the art of designing cars, also a particular interest of his father, Edsel Ford. But, Bill Ford Sr. said, "I don't think it's fair or right if I speak up about something I don't have any responsibility for.

"As a member of the board, certainly you give your opinion on whatever the issue is. But I never do anything other than what's done formally through board procedure."

The new boss

For him, that means leaving the management of Ford Motor to its executives unless his role as the company's longest serving director -- one of three Fords on the board -- requires him to do otherwise. In the fall of 2001, it meant stepping outside the boardroom when it came to deciding whether Bill Ford Jr. would become CEO.

The final decision to replace fired CEO Jacques A. Nasser with Bill Ford Jr. was made by Ford Motor's outside directors, Bill Ford Sr. said. He, Bill Ford Jr. and cousin Edsel B. Ford, the third family director on the board, were excused while fellow directors considered a move that put a fourth-generation family member at the top.

That's not to say that Bill Ford Jr., chairman throughout Nasser's stormy tenure, didn't make the case with each director that it was time for Nasser to go and that he was ready to take over. He did. But Ford Motor's independent directors made the final call, not the Ford family.

"It was done without any pressure or input from members of the family," Bill Ford Sr. said. "I didn't play any role at all in that way. Inside the family there were probably discussions about a lot of people, but that was just opinion."

Added Bill Ford Jr.: "Nobody wanted this change to happen because it meant that there had been a failure. It wasn't anything that was premeditated. It was really precipitated by events."

Ugly events, too. Losses totaled billions. Market share declined. Quality gaffes mounted and manufacturing efficiency slipped. Relationships were strained with hourly workers and union leaders. Salaried employees filed lawsuits to protest a draconian evaluation programs.

It was a mess. It's not even close to being fixed, at least not in a way the Ford family and Ford Motor's shareholders would want to claim. Remarkable, though, is how a family company built from the restless tinkering of Henry Ford has remained largely intact a century later.

Sticking together

Fourth-generation Fords attribute their cohesion to a comparatively small family. Henry Ford had just one child, Edsel, who fathered three boys -- Henry II, Benson and William Clay -- and one daughter, Josephine. Besides William Clay, Josephine is the other surviving child.

Bill Ford Sr. thinks pride has helped, too.

"Even though altogether they might control 40 percent of the vote, their desire and really everything they do is directed toward making Ford a better place to work and a better company," Bill Ford Sr. said. "That is the glue that keeps them all together. There's great family pride in the name Ford."

Bill Ford Jr. put it this way: "We're not going to abandon the company in bad times and take the money and run in good times."

A century of Ford history, including the most recent chapter starring the family scion steering the company away from an abyss, supports his argument. The same could be said of Henry Ford's legacy to southeast Michigan -- Henry Ford Hospital, The Henry Ford with its museum and Greenfield Village -- and his enduring charitable legacy to the world, the Ford Foundation.

The Fords, the saying goes, are the closest thing America has to royalty. While many of us worry about paying the mortgage, putting the kids through college or whether to remodel the kitchen, theirs is a complicated birthright whose great wealth coexists with a deep sense of responsibility and obligation.

Bill Ford Sr. is no exception. As the son juggles the demands of running one of the world's largest companies, the father has the luxury of reflecting on what his family's legacy should be, even if it may sometimes fall short.

"To preserve the things that my grandfather started," Bill Ford Sr. said. "To maintain the character and quality of all the things he began. We want to keep them living. We don't want them to rust and die away."

(Photo) William Clay Ford Sr. is delighted his son, Bill Jr., is running the company after nearly 20 years of professional CEOs. "It is, to me, a great satisfaction that it's back in the family again and that there's such an interest being shown," he says.

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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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