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US:Bill Ford: It's time to seize the day

Robin Buckson / The Detroit News
It will "take years" to ingrain his vision within the company, Bill Ford Jr. points out.

Bill Ford: It's time to seize the day

By Daniel Howes / The Detroit News

Amy E. Powers / Associated Press
"My job is to make sure that our management behaves in a way that makes innovation able to flourish here," Bill Ford Jr. says.

DEARBORN -- The leading plotter of a cultural revolution at Ford Motor Co. has his name on the building.

Chairman and CEO Bill Ford Jr.'s cause, "American Innovation," may sound like a hollow corporate buzz phrase as Ford struggles to prosper in the car business. But if he can realize the vision he has for his great-grandfather's company and actually make money in the process, it would stand alongside the automaker's cars and trucks as a defining characteristic of his tenure and Ford's second century.

"I'm very impatient," he told me in an interview in his office Friday. "We need to break the bureaucracy. We need to be bolder in the way we execute our products -- and you're starting to see that. I was asked by several of our management, 'Are you sure you're really ready to take this risk within the company?' To me, the risk of standing pat is far greater than the risk of being bold."

As pressure mounts for details about a "Big Bang" restructuring of Ford -- plant closings, job cuts, asset sales, reorganizations -- Bill Ford points to the recent record of corporate actions and says the Big Bang has been occurring for six months already. And it will continue.

His "innovation" push is the cultural-cum-environmental component to it all, which he recognizes may take years to become a credible part of Ford's corporate fabric. He says it's a way to differentiate Ford in an intensely competitive industry the way "Quality is Job 1," a company tag line for 19 years, differentiated Ford when building quality cars and trucks wasn't an industry imperative.

"Everything's on the table," he said. "A lot of the big moves are finished ... (but) there's more to come. The blocking and tackling, the really difficult stuff, we still have to do that. We've got to get our capacity right, our footprint right, our cost structure right. We've still got a ways to go."

Does that mean Ford, whose costs are too high and whose plant network in North America is too large, will move to close plants? Probably. Does that mean that Ford, in the middle of trimming 2,750 white-collar jobs, will look to shed more? Probably, although Bill Ford isn't willing to talk about either issue until he, the company and the United Auto Workers union are ready -- which isn't now.

"I actually read a couple of the reports ... saying Ford is going to have a major announcement on Oct. 20 when they have their earnings call," he said. "Really not. We'll have a little more specificity. But it will be more around what this year and next year kind of look like, and probably less about, here are the specific actions."

Many of them already are on the record. The deal with Visteon Corp. that enabled the former Ford parts unit to dump its U.S. operations back on Ford, at least for now; the sale of the Hertz rental car business, which pumped $5.6 billion onto Ford's balance sheet; an executive shake-up that a week from now is installing a new North American boss in Dearborn; a new three-year labor contract with the Canadian Auto Workers; the reorganization of Ford, Lincoln and Mercury field sales operation; white-collar layoffs; and the suspension of bonuses for managers and matching payments for 401(k) accounts.

For some inside Ford's vast empire, those changes -- and some likely to come -- are wrenching, but they're arguably necessary if Ford wants to boost its credit rating from "junk," wrest profits from its struggling auto business and signal that its future is not as bleak as its critics think.

To grasp where Bill Ford wants to take the family-controlled company is to understand that its prosperity won't be determined only by how many plants it tries to close next year (which would be very difficult under the current union contract) or during the 2007 contract talks; or how many white-collar jobs will be eliminated over the next three years; or whether the new Fusion sedan heading to showrooms is a hit or not.

All of those matter in their own confined, bottom-line way. But winning in the global auto business is about more than cutting. It means an end to shipping boring cars and SUVs, a recent Ford affliction that the boss promises is getting better, and giving environmentally conscious consumers real choices inside Ford showrooms.

And it means, as Bill Ford and his top execs have concluded, that Ford needs to offer customers, investors and employees something more -- novel solutions to 21st century transportation and environmental concerns. It would be a sort of over-arching promise and identity infusing Ford's car and truck brands with the technology that most rivals cannot credibly offer, at least not in the same way.

In short, a better idea.

That's why last week he pointed Ford into the future by evoking the entrepreneurial roots of the company -- the Model T, the moving assembly line, the $5 day and the catalytic converter, all Ford innovations.

He said that Ford would be prepared to build 250,000 gasoline-electric hybrid cars and SUVs by 2010; that it would offer ethanol-fueled cars in coming model years; and that it would begin carbon recovery programs to offset the carbon created by producing cars and trucks.

Those are the beginning moves in a corporate makeover that has been building at Ford for some time. They're the fruit of "senior leadership off-site" meetings that began last June at Ford Field. There, Ford's 20 top execs met and tried to look at the company as if they were customers, outside investors and would-be employees.

What is Ford?

What should it strive to be if it wants to woo loyal customers, savvy investors and the talent it'll need to survive and prosper?

"We don't want to remake ourselves into something we're not," Bill Ford said, adding that it will "take years" to ingrain his vision within Ford and make it believable in the marketplace.

"The good news is the employees are desperate for it. This is not going to be a hard sell" he said. "But ... it will require that our management be willing to think differently. My job is to make sure that our management behaves in a way that makes innovation able to flourish here."

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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