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By Daniel Howes / The Detroit News

DEARBORN -- One month ago today, Ford Motor Co. Chairman Bill Ford Jr. stood before his global leadership team and posed a question: How could Ford capitalize, if at all, on its reputation as a family company run by someone named Ford?

It wasn’t vanity that motivated his challenge, but data from a corporate reputation survey performed by the Daniel Yankelovich Group. The results showed a spike in Ford’s image and the increased likelihood of would-be customers to consider buying its vehicles once they understood it to be more a family company than faceless corporation.

Officially, Ford spokesman Jim Vella says this exercise is “still in the formative stages” and isn’t sure where it might lead. It’s also worth pointing out that other family-controlled automakers — BMW and Porsche of Germany, PSA-Citroen of France and Toyota of Japan — typically don’t use family members as prominent faces for their companies.

But those people don’t run those companies, either, like Bill Ford has done for more than two years now. Ford is unique among automakers in that respect, which likely is one reason its CEO wants the company’s top 300 executives to consider whether it’s an idea worth pursuing and, if so, how.

A key question is whether emphasizing the Ford-as-family distinction would be a liability or an asset, as the Yankelovich numbers appear to suggest, in this age of cynicism toward large corporations run by interchangeable execs.

Other questions facing Ford: Should the automaker launch a broad marketing campaign that emphasizes the Ford family’s century-long stewardship at the company? And would that translate into more sales and fatter profits?

The public reaction to TV ads in which Bill Ford talked about the company and what it means to him were successful, even if the boss wasn’t crazy about doing them. And the outpouring surrounding Ford’s centennial celebration last summer indicates Ford and its founding family still resonate with the public.

Where else in corporate America is this possible? Not at GM or DaimlerChrysler. Not at The New York Times Co. or IBM or ExxonMobil or AT&T or Disney. Bill Gates is Microsoft’s co-founder and CEO, but Microsoft still is not the towering commercial and cultural presence that Ford, for all its ups and downs, is.

Others have used their founders as the face of their brands, if not their companies. Dave Thomas and Wendy’s. Frank Perdue and Perdue Chicken. Orville Redenbacher, the popcorn king. But all those, and most any others you can think of, pale in comparison to the scale of Ford, the ubiquity of its products and the mystique of its founding family.

Risk, reward

Right now Bill Ford and key aides are sifting through the ideas and suggestions that have been pouring in the past month from executives. The next step could be soliciting feedback from Ford’s employees.

Ford has been down this road before and reaped the benefits. The so-called “Bill Ford ads,” aired in the wake of the Ford Explorer-Firestone tire debacle, did in fact deliver a meaningful 14-point uptick in the “purchase consideration” among potential customers who saw the ads.

Ford also has taken some shots because of its chairman’s prominence, albeit shots that play loose with the facts. Largely because he is not some anonymous executive whose name means little to outsiders, Bill Ford has been targeted by environmental groups which claim he misled the public about Ford’s plans to make its vehicles cleaner and more fuel-efficient.

The most recent slap depicted him as Pinocchio. The truth, however, is far more complex, mired in a web of marketing promises that outpaced engineering, grandstanding by former executives and ill-advised corporate hype.

Still, Ford’s recent experience with environmental demagoguery highlights a downside risk for corporations that choose to vest part of their corporate identity in one or several individuals associated with them — even if one of them has his name on the building, as Henry Ford II was fond of saying.

Ford insiders privately say it’s not at all clear yet whether any discernable public marketing campaign or slogan — if any — will come from the internal discussions, which are likely to focus as much on the risks of such a strategy as any potential rewards.

Nevertheless, they are discussions worth having, even if they lead only to internal changes about how the company tries to approach its business and communicate with employees.

A broader issue here is a cultural change that Bill Ford is trying to lead at the company, one that effectively would return Ford to the days when its employees felt like and were regarded as members of an extended family even as the automaker tries to reinvent the way it does business.

To cut costs, he asks employees to think and act as if Ford was their company and its money was theirs. He has asked his leadership team whether Ford is the kind of place they would want members of their own families to work and if not, why not.

Those are understandable questions from the great-grandson of founder Henry Ford. Employees may be more receptive to them today than, say, two years ago when Ford’s prospects looked bleak, its new product pipeline was all but empty and the wounds of former President Jacques Nasser’s stint as CEO still were raw.

Strategy tweaks

There’s more.

As Ford pushes ahead with a product offensive it calls the Year of the Car here in North America, the automaker also is continuing a high-level strategic review begun by Vice Chairman Alan Gilmour and now being headed by Ford’s new strategy guru, Bruce Blythe.

The effort, fairly typical in most companies but especially important for a Ford in transition, includes identifying whatever competitive advantages it may be able to leverage — such as being a family-controlled automakers — linking them to improved business results and determining the smartest ways to deploy its $25.9 billion in cash.

Among the questions being asked: What’s the smartest use of Ford’s cash hoard and how much should it keep on hand? Should Ford invest more in its employee pension funds or retire some outstanding debt? How will the European market look five or 10 years from now, and how could Ford better position itself there than it has for the past five years?

How should the automaker allocate its capital? Where and with whom could it profitably develop and build a subcompact car, known as a “B car” in industry-speak, to compete with General Motors Corp.’s new South Korean-built models. Ford’s Mazda Motor Co. is one obvious option, Bill Ford has acknowledged, but comparatively high costs in Japan could make an alliance with a South Korean manufacturer more attractive.

No decisions have been made. But the pressure to improve Ford’s financial performance, reverse sliding market share in the United States and Europe and seek new opportunities in developing markets virtually ignored before are driving Bill Ford to seek advantage wherever he can find it.

Unlike most industry CEOs, who are employees first and shareholders second, he and his family will live with the wisdom or folly of today’s decisions long after his rivals have passed into retirement and left others to carry on.

Bill Ford doesn’t have that luxury, which is why he’s asking the hard questions — even if they’re about him.
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