FORD TOUGH: The pressure's on for Bill Ford Jr. to finish first
June 10, 2003
BY DAVID ZEMAN AND JAMIE BUTTERS
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITERS
You can resent Bill Ford Jr.'s blue-blood birthright. You can dismiss his ascension, at 44, to chief executive of his great-granddaddy's car company. You can grumble about his net worth, which stands north of $100 million. Or his $2.9-million estate near Ann Arbor. Or that he drives home at night to an absurdly attractive family.
You can hate all those things.
But you can't hate Bill Ford.
You can scan the world, you can call classmates from grade school through college, colleagues and rivals, historians and teachers. And they may cast doubt on Ford Motor Co.'s future. They may snort at the notion that a self-styled environmentalist can run a company that builds gas-swilling behemoths. They may question his credentials to be a CEO. But they will also ply you with tales of Bill Jr.'s kindness, of his innate decency when no one is looking. They will tell you that this charismatic scion of the Ford dynasty, a Princeton grad who loves fly-fishing, is the same man now, as CEO, as he was as a junior executive in New Jersey. And they will apologize as they search their memories in vain for a story -- any story -- of young Bill's foolishness or failings.
Actually, there is one story -- Ford tells it himself -- involving an office window and an X-Acto knife. But we're jumping ahead.
First, there's the small matter of whether Bill Ford can even save Ford Motor, which marks its centennial Monday.
Nothing is riding on his performance except maybe the jobs of 350,000 workers, the economic security of southeastern Michigan and the onerous mantle of his family's legacy.
Saving the company
Since he orchestrated the firing of Jacques Nasser and added CEO to his chairman title in October 2001, Ford stock has dropped from $16 to about $10 a share. The company has lost $6.4 billion over two years-- though most of that was on Nasser's watch. While Bill Ford crows that Ford has surpassed Wall Street's expectations for five quarters, its future remains perilous.
Ford still has too many plants in North America, selling to a smaller slice of a shrinking U.S. auto market. Its credit rating inches toward junk status as executives contemplate unfunded pensions, rising health-care costs and contract talks with the UAW this summer. And Ford's battalion of publicists has had to battle rumors of imminent bankruptcy.
Bill Ford, meanwhile, has also faced heat.
Many analysts question whether Ford, at 46, has the experience, instinct and courageto lead Ford from the precipice.
The company's condition is "as tough a situation as has occurred in the last two or three generations," said University of Michigan business professor Gerald Meyers, a former chairman of American Motors.
Meyers said he looks at Ford's resume, spanning 18 positions in two decades, and sees "minor jobs, with limited responsibility. . . . Ford needs a heavy-duty, deeply experienced, no-nonsense leader."
Saul Rubin, a New York-based industry analyst at the investment bank UBS Warburg, said Ford needs to get smaller -- cut thousands more jobs and close plants -- now that GM has become the most efficient American manufacturer.
"The response has been to fight GM dollar for dollar for market share, and I think that's a big mistake," said Rubin, a consistent critic of Ford's plan.
Bill Ford has also faced ethical questions over millions of dollars in Goldman Sachs shares he received as chairman when the investment bank went public in 1999. Ford later donated the profits to charity after shareholder complaints that the shares belonged to the company, not Bill Ford.
The post-Enron era may be "open season on CEOs," as Bill Ford described it. Investor cynicism and growing foreign competition pose challenges Henry Ford might have scarcely imagined. "Henry's only competition was the horse," joked longtime dealer Martin (Hoot) McInerney. Yetdoubts persist about Bill Ford's toughness.
Ford hoped that question would fade after he announced in January 2002 that Ford was closing five plants and laying off 35,000 workers worldwide.
"By all the measurables we've laid out, whether it's cost, quality, market share, morale with employees and dealers, every one of those is moving in the right direction," he said recently. "I don't think you can do all that if you don't have people's attention.
"I'll let others decide whether I'm tough. But I'm not going to compromise my humanity in this job, and frankly I think that's the worst thing I can do, anyway. I think people respond to me in this company because they do see me as approachable. They see me as somebody who cares."
Shortly after becoming CEO, Ford was persuaded to star in a series of TV ads intended to boost Ford's image after the 2001 Firestone tire recall that cost Ford Motor $3 billion and much of its reputation. He spoke cheerfully, and -- he insists -- spontaneously into the camera and proclaimed his love for family, hotels with windows that open, and a "red Mustang convertible with a throaty V8."
The spots were a smash, lending a voice and a face and a buck-stops-here accountability to a staggering company. They also jacked up Bill Ford's public profile, a loss of privacy he accepts but does not seem to relish.
Still, he appears outwardly upbeat, most days.
One weekday afternoon, Ford slipped away from work to stand by hiswife, Lisa, and watch their two daughters play varsity soccer in Dearborn. Wearing jeans, a jacket and Oakley sunglasses, the CEO clapped and shouted encouragement from the sidelines.
He worries about striking the proper balance between an all-consuming job and his four children. The kids appear to be holding their own. One recent weekend, Bill and Lisa Ford crisscrossed Ann Arbor to cheer at 10 separate athletic events.
"I get home at night and I'm met with a ball," Ford says with a laugh. "Actually, I love it. It's a riot. They couldn't care less what happened at Ford that day, which for me is a great change."
Ford showed the same exuberance at a town hall-style meeting with employees in April, prowling the stage at headquarters like an adolescent puma and rejoicing in a positive earnings report.
"This," he told workers, "has been the kind of day we've been waiting for fora long, long time around here."
But life in the corner office can be lonesome as well.
Ford grouses to top executives that nobody enters his office except to complain. He's had to ditch his passions of fly-fishing and tae kwon do. Old friends rarely call, not wanting to bother him. Then there are the new friends.
"A lot of times I'll meet people and they'll be really nice, but there's always a punch line. 'I want to pitch you for this,' or 'Get my son hired for that,' " Ford said. "Which is all fine, but it's nice to have friends who just don't want anything."
'The best person I've ever known'
Bill Ford burst into the national spotlight soon after he moved to the Glass House as chairman on Jan. 1, 1999.
Only 30 days later, a boiler exploded at the Rouge complex in Dearborn. Twenty people were seriously injured in the blast, mostly with burns. Six died.
Ford toured the blast site and spoke to reporters, his voice catching, eyes welled with tears.
"This has got to be the worst day of my life," he said.
Ford then went looking for the families. At a hospital, he introduced himself. He expressed his sorrow. He asked what he could do. He invited the families to talk, or to scream. He pulled out his wallet and said, "This is all the cash I have." He pulled out his credit cards and handed them out, too. He urged them to use the money for food, hotel rooms, or whatever they needed. Ford's decency that day helped define his public persona.
Less remembered was a subsequent state report that found Ford Motor ignored safety regulations and put workers at risk in the years before the blast. State investigators also complained that Ford attorneys kept them at bay by withholding documents. Ford eventually paid a $1.5-million fine, the largest ever for state safety violations.
Bill Ford declined to discuss the report.
But his admirers say his actions on the day of the Rouge tragedy are more reflective of his character than the corporate foot-dragging that may have followed.
When Jose Berrocal, Ford's best friend from Princeton, was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, he returned to his native Puerto Rico, keeping his illness a secret. When Ford learned of the cancer, he flew immediately to San Juan and saw just how sick Berrocal had become.
He sent a plane to bring Berrocal to Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, which had a chemotherapy treatment not widely available. Jose was there for a month. Bill Ford, mired in the crucible of the Firestone recall, visited his friend every day. He was by his bed, with his friend's mother, when Jose died one night in October.
Ford refuses to talk about it. But his friends do.
"At the end of life, you see the best and worst of people," said Maria Berrocal, Jose's sister. "I frankly think he's the best person I've ever known."
'You're expected to do that'
Ford's admirers say they have no doubts about his tenacity. They point to his decision to join Ford Motor after graduating from Princeton in 1979 as a decision fraught with as many obstacles as advantages.
"He didn't get pushed into working at Ford," said Mark Higbie, a childhood friend. "But he always felt that everything he had was because of the Ford Motor Co., that this is the reason he had all these advantages.
"He once told me, 'I need to give something back. I want to help. I want to contribute.' ''
Stephen Phinny, another friend, said Ford knew he would beunder a microscope.
"How would you like to go through life knowing that even if you did the absolute best job anyone can do, you would be patted on the back and told, 'Yeah, you're expected to do that'? "
Bill Ford moved through more than a dozen jobs by the early 1990s, posts that would take him from labor negotiations in Detroit to zone manager in New Jersey, to head of a subsidiary in Switzerland and back home again.
Some days were better than others. One day, while working in product development, he looked at the rubber cement that sealed his office window and thought, "At one time, that window must have opened."
"So I got an X-Acto knife and sliced the rubber cement. And then I got an Allen wrench and opened the window. What I didn't realize was the negative pressure that was in the building and everything in my office went flying out of the window -- 'whoosh.' "
It was not his finest hour.
But Ford took pains to fit in, work hard and learn the business. When he was assigned to truck engineering, he enrolled in a course to learn to drive 18-wheelers. He introduced himself as William Clay.
"When he entered a new department, he was the one emptying the wastepaper basket," said historian David Horowitz, coauthor of "The Fords: An American Epic." "He didn't skip any of the humble tasks."
'As normal a childhood as possible'
That Bill Ford Jr. grew into a normal adult was not preordained, given the eccentricity, alcoholism and dysfunction that have been as indelibly a part of the extended Ford family as its genius.
His father, board member and Detroit Lions owner William Clay Ford Sr., was raised in the opulence of the Gaukler Pointe estate, built by Bill Jr.'s grandfather, Edsel Ford, on Lake St. Clair.
His mother, Martha Parke Firestone, granddaughter of the tire mogul, was raised among butlers and servants in a home where the family linens were sent to Paris to be laundered.
William and Martha Ford vowed that their four children would not be raised by governesses and nannies. So Mrs. Ford packed lunches, attended class plays and teacher meetings, took Billy to hockey practice at 7 a.m., and lined up her car in the school parking lot behind the other moms at day's end. True, some of the other moms had last names like Fisher and Buhl and Freuhauf, but still.
"I think they wanted me to have as normal a childhood as possible," Bill Ford said. "That was important to them. I think they ultimately wanted me to sink or swim on my own merits."
Bill's fathernudged Bill and his three sisters into sports. And Bill grew up energetic and scrappy, leaving the comforts of the Grosse Pointes for a chippier hockey league in St. Clair Shores.
"My father stopped coming to my hockey games because he thought I fought for his benefit," Bill Jr. recalled. "Every time he'd come, I'd get in a brawl."
But the grandest perk for young Bill was his father's purchase of the Lions. Bill remembers Sunday afternoons as a young boy freezing in the stands and slurping hot chocolate until his bladder near burst, while fans nearby yelled obscenities at his dad.
It was also as a young boy that Bill developed his love for nature. The family belonged to Fontinalis, a northern Michigan fishing camp.
The camp's caretaker, Walter Babcock, taught Bill to navigate the region's woods and streams. Bill learned to spot the claw marks of bears on beech trees. He learned that fiddlehead ferns are edible. And he learned to fly-fish. Bill and Babcock would sneak out at night and head to the Sturgeon River to cast for trout.
"Every year I would ask my mother as a birthday present if she would take me back," Ford said. "My mom was a great trouper, because she'd go sit on the porch for four days and I'd hang out with Walter."
Ford said he was too young to remember his father's well-chronicled battle with alcoholism. Stifled in his advancement at Ford Motor Co. by his older brother, Henry Ford II, William Clay Ford spent the better part of a decade drinking as his wife struggled to keep their family together.
In his book, David Horowitz recounts how Martha Ford fed the children late-afternoon snacks so they could eat dinner with their father when he came home from work late, and often drunk.
Unlike his brother Benson, William Clay Ford did not succumb to booze. He stopped one day in 1965.
The book recounts how he sometimes hosted Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in his Lake Shore mansion. Bill Jr. would greet recovering alcoholics at the front door in his pajamas.
"I don't have any recollection of that," Bill Jr. said. "It was only later that I learned from him and my mom what that was about."
What he does remember vividly is his father's swift response to a mediocre report card. "It was time to get in the car and take a drive," Bill recalled.
And so they did. After awhile, his father turned to Bill and asked him what he wanted to do in life.
Bill, who was about 11, said he had no idea.
Well, his father continued, who do you admire?
Bill thought for a moment and answered: Gordie Howe.
"How hard do you think Gordie Howe has had to work to achieve what he's achieved?"
Bill gave that some thought.
"You know," his father said, "he didn't just wake up one day and become the greatest hockey player in the world. He's had to work exceptionally hard. So just don't think you can coast through school and everything will be just fine. I don't care if you get straight A's. I don't care if you score three goals. But I do care that you give your best effort every day, and in everything you do."
It's a speech Bill Jr. took to heart. "It's something I try to live by," he said.
After taking his father's path through Hotchkiss, the Connecticut prep school, Ford landed at Princeton, where he studied history, played rugby and tooled around campus in a metallic-green Mustang (a Hotchkiss graduation present) with a bumper sticker that read, "In rugby there are no winners, only survivors."
In his senior year, Ford was elected president of Ivy, the oldest and most prestigious of Princeton's private eating clubs, and one of only three all-male clubs. It was there that Ford met Sally Frank, a student activist bent on crashing the all-male system.
Her efforts to rush the male clubs led to taunting, threats and, in one instance, a pitcher of beer dumped on her head.
While the other male clubs refused to interview Frank, Ford told her she could interview at Ivy, though he warned that her chances were nil.
"One of the things I always valued in him was that, during the spring of 1979, when I was being harassed like crazy, getting obscene phone calls, nasty comments and dirty looks, Bill took the time to extend his friendship," said Frank, now a law professor at Drake University in Iowa.
Frank was rejected by Ivy but later successfully sued the clubs, forcing them to open their membership to women.
Ford also developed an interest in Eastern mysticism at Princeton, and immersed himself in philosophy. And he began to delve more deeply into his family's legacy, including Henry Ford's. For his senior thesis, Ford wrote about Henry's pitched battles with labor in the 1930s. The thesis is remarkable for its unskeptical defense of Henry Ford and his thuggish enforcer, Harry Bennett, and its harsh assessment of the era's labor leaders.
Bill Ford wrote, against all evidence, that Henry Ford "never threatened any man who joined a union because he strongly believed in freedom of choice and because he honestly believed that if the man thought that it was a wise move, then he should do it."
Today, Ford -- following stints in plants and at the negotiating table -- enjoys warm relations with the UAW and its leaders.
Asked about the thesis recently, Bill Ford Jr. buried his head and groaned, "It was awful."
He said he pounded out the thesis in five days and simply intended it to explain why Henry Ford felt betrayed by workers.
"It's funny, I knew very little at the time," Ford said. "Oh, God, I can't believe you read that thing."
It's not easy being green
On a recent afternoon, Ford sat in his handsome 12th-floor corner office at Ford headquarters in Dearborn, with expansive views of the vast Rouge complex and the museum named for his great-grandfather.
Tropical fish glided silently above photographs of his family and of Bill smashing bricks in his tae kwon do class (he's a black belt). An acoustic guitar was perched near the burled-maple desk that was Edsel Ford's.
The office is an environmentalist's idyll. The upholstery is biodegradable, the wallcovering made of hemp. The wood comes from sustainable forests. The ceiling tiles are from recycled materials
It suits Bill Ford's sensibilities, and it must tickle him, too, when he thinks of the Ford executives who once cursed his flirtation with the green movement.
In 1988, senior executives told Ford to stop consorting with environmental groups. "I just flatly said no," Ford recalled. "I said somebody has got to be a bridge in the widening gulf between the environmentalists and the industrialists. And I felt it was a role that I could and wanted to play."
And he has, perhaps too well.
As chairman, Bill Ford led the company's withdrawal from the Global Climate Coalition, an industry group that portrayed global warming as a fraud. He and Nasser also committed Ford Motor to producing SUVs that were 25 percent more fuel efficient by 2005.
But when Ford Motor recently announced it might not meet its timetable on SUV fuel efficiency, environmentalists howled. Some, including Daniel Becker of the Sierra Club, accused Bill Ford Jr. of selling out to shareholders.Becker said he is tougher on Bill Ford because he is the only auto executive most Americans can identify with his company. And because he expects more of him.
Ford said he regrets that some doubt his environmental commitment, but he is not losing sleep. "Without being too cynical, when they attack me it gets them ink. And at the end of the day, a lot of them want the publicity, too. I've even had some of them say, 'Hey, it's not personal.'
"It kind of feels that way," he laughs ruefully.
The green attacks have toughened Ford, said historian Douglas Brinkley, author of the recently published "Wheels for the World," a chronicle of FordMotor's century.
"He thought he could have a dialogue with these people because he was simpatico to their cause. And instead, they pummeled him with knives.
"But Ford's a pragmatist above all else, and his board of directors need to sell this year's models and not just worry about clean air in 2020."
Bill Ford has made clear, for instance, that increasing market share and cutting costs -- particularly in health-care expenses -- will be among his top priorities in the months to come.
In Brinkley's mind, Bill Jr. forever answered the "toughness" question on Oct. 29, 2001, the day he called Nasser into his chairman's office and ended his reign as CEO. The pair's awkward power-sharing arrangement was over.
"It was Bill Ford's coming of age," Brinkley said. "He could no longer just be the cheerleader for the company, he had to be a hatchet man. It's not in his nature, and Nasser is not an easy personality to fire. And Bill went in and did it like a man."
Ford prepared for that day by first voicing his concerns over the company's direction to two trusted Ford directors, Irvine Hockaday and Carl Reichardt.
"You're going to have a shot at making your case to the board," Hockaday told Ford. "But you'd better not walk in there with just a shoe shine and a smile and think that's good enough."
Bill Ford arrived prepared. "We were a tough audience and we were impressed," Hockaday said. "It was the first time I thought this guy had the backbone to lead this company."
The new CEO arrived at Ford headquarters the following morning, to a standing ovation.
"I love this place," Ford told workers. "I bleed Ford blue."
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.....