World :Ford family wins vote to stay in driving seat
By Simon English in Dearborn, Michigan
Ford yesterday shrugged off an attempt by rebel shareholders to loosen the founding family's grip on the iconic motor giant and dismissed talk of bankruptcy.
At the annual meeting that coincided with Ford's 100th birthday, shareholders rejected several contentious proposals that would have diluted the family's control and possibly opened the business to a takeover bid.
Ford family members own just 4pc of the company but have 40pc of the voting power through a special B class of shares, an imbalance shareholder Richard Mills said should be outlawed. "The board of directors has been out to lunch for quite a few years, which is the major reason the Ford Motor Company is in deep trouble today," he said.
His proposal was overwhelmingly rejected, although another to set up an independent committee to investigate conflicts of interest between the family and other shareholders won nearly 20pc of the vote, indicating increasing levels of investor concern.
A long weekend of celebrations for Ford's centenary were clouded by the company's financial problems, with some analysts asking if the turnround plan led by chairman Bill Ford will work.
His father, William Ford Senior, addressing the meeting yesterday, attacked the "doomsayers on Wall Street who say the sky is falling in. Don't believe it for a second". Ford has cash of $25 billion and other liquid assets it could draw on in the event of crisis, but it is burning through the money at a rate that alarms some observers.
UBS Warburg analyst Saul Rubin recently suggested that one of Ford, General Motors and DaimlerChrysler will face bankruptcy within the next decade, backing earlier predictions from independent ratings agency Egan Jones.
Bill Ford said: "We will do everything we can to make sure we aren't that one." Mr Ford faced some criticism for receiving 4m share options, an amount one investor dubbed "excessive". Mr Ford said the intention is to align his interests with ordinary investors, noting he had not taken a cash salary last year, something he intends to repeat next year.
At a largely feel-good meeting, several shareholders spoke in favour of management and the family, noting that their controlling interest prevents the company becoming, as one put it, "another faceless corporation" in foreign hands. Ford also rejected calls for a stock buy-back to improve a share price that has plunged from $50 at the start of 2000 to a low of below $10 at one point recently.
The company is under pressure from environmentalists to speed up the introduction of "hybrid" cars that would lower fuel emissions. Mr Ford said he needs help from the government to move as fast as he'd like. "In many cases, gasoline is cheaper than bottled water, so our customers are saying, give me the biggest engine you've got.
"We can't unilaterally decide to stop making certain products. We can't swim against the tide and the reception to hybrids has been limited," he told the meeting.
Since seizing control of the company in a management coup that saw previous chief executive Jacques Nasser ousted, Mr Ford has had to cope with one of the fiercest industry downturns in history.
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.....