Hey, did you hear the one about Ford and Toyota? No way
Internet rumors breed angst, PR
By Daniel Howes / The Detroit News
Today’s the day Toyota Motor Co.p. is supposed to announce plans to buy Ford Motor Co.
Or buy 20 percent of Ford.
Or buy Ford of Europe.
Or buy Ford’s Wixom Assembly plant.
Or take a 45 percent stake in Visteon, Ford’s once-and-former supplier.
But none of these are true, both companies say emphatically. Like the Orson Welles-concocted “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast that panicked a nation, the Internet-fueled Toyota takeover rumor mill has rattled many who care about Ford, the auto industry and the future of Detroit.
From assembly line hands and white-collar engineers to Ford retirees and big-time auto dealers, the back channels are buzzing with, “Have you heard ...?”
Maybe it started with an innocuous (but, in retrospect, sinister) question, posted 3:33 a.m. Aug. 24 on blueovalnews.com's message board. It asked, “Any idea as to what the big announcement is going to be about?” The avalanche of speculation keeps coming.
Maybe fears grew when line workers heard something “big” was coming, and the big thing turned out to be the late-year production cuts announced Wednesday.
But by the time Ford (and GM) confirmed the cutbacks, the chatterers had embellished their line with talk of a special Ford board meeting this week that didn’t happen because it didn’t need to.
Maybe it’s all this recent talk about Toyota looking for land to expand its technical center in Washtenaw County. Or that Gov. Jennifer Granholm is pushing the Legislature to make sure Toyota gets the land it wants, so she can claim credit for landing hundreds of next-century auto jobs.
Or maybe the metastasizing rumors are evidence of Detroit’s anxiety about a creeping foreign domination of its hometown industry. Combine that with too many people with too much time using the power and pervasiveness of the Internet to spout off and what you get is a lot of half-cocked blather that doesn’t pass the “does-it-make-sense” test.
Ford says — repeatedly, but not for attribution, because it doesn’t want to acknowledge the rumors by responding to them — that there’s nothing to any of this. Yet the rumors grew so intense as the week passed that by Wednesday the company published a story on its internal Web site headlined, “Growing Use of Internet Publishing Brings New Challenges to Business.”
“Thanks — and sometimes, no thanks — to the Internet, everyone’s a publisher now,” the internal article said. “And that’s creating new challenges for companies like Ford, political campaigns and anyone else in the public eye.
“The disadvantage of the Internet is that rumors can be published electronically that don’t pass anyone’s journalistic standard. Such rumors can proliferate rapidly and create headaches for those who are charged with managing the news.”
Ford should know, given the cultural propensity of some inside for trafficking in farfetched rumors when their time would be better spent focusing on building better cars and trucks.
Toyota dismisses the takeover talk with a generic strategy statement and a hint of bemusement. Japan’s No. 1 automaker has no intention “to acquire another auto company,” according to a Toyota spokesman in New York. “Our intention is to work from the ground up.”
For evidence of the contention, look around — in the United States, in Canada, in Britain, France and in eastern Europe.
Toyota doesn’t acquire auto companies or brands, it creates them (think Lexus and Scion), or it crafts limited joint ventures with rivals (think the engine deal with PSA-Peugeot in the Czech Republic or the NUMMI plant partnership with General Motors in California).
Toyota doesn’t buy old auto plants in the UAW stronghold of Metro Detroit. It builds new, state-of-the-art plants in the fields of Indiana, the valleys of West Virginia and the arid hills outside San Antonio. And it recruits new, younger workforces untainted by the old habits of the UAW.
Toyota has made, oh, about $18 billion in net profits over just the past two years (roughly 80 percent of it from American wallets). Its market share is growing in the rich U.S. market, growing in Europe and playing catch-up, Toyota-style, in China. What would it gain by owning any piece of Ford, aside from a furious political backlash and the mother of all culture clashes?
None of this, however, seems to register with the rumormongers. Why should it when the fun apparently is in spreading the rumor and making people squirm — like the 31-year-old mother who works at Ford’s Dearborn Truck plant and signed her e-mail to me, “The Worried Worker.”
“Rumors are flying everywhere about a Ford-Toyota or a Ford-Honda merger,” she wrote. “It would be devastating to the Motor City.”
Yes, it would. But it doesn’t account for why Toyota does what it does so well and it doesn’t account for Ford Chairman Bill Ford Jr., the Ford Family, its controlling stake in Henry Ford’s auto company and the family’s commitment to keeping Ford independent — until further notice.
This is a chairman whose corporate cash hoard is roughly $26 billion and who would sooner burn down the Glass House than sell it to Toyota or Honda or, God forbid, General Motors. This is a family that still takes its responsibility to its home and its employees seriously, even if others don’t.