Bill Ford:
The Man Behind the Trademark

Bill Ford pictured with some Irish Fords, Henry Dan Ford and Hannah Ford O’Brien, 5, who turned out to meet him when he visited Ballinascarty, Co. Cork, birthplace of his great-great-grandfather William Ford.
Bill Ford pictured with some Irish Fords, Henry Dan Ford and Hannah Ford O’Brien, 5, who turned out to meet him when he visited Ballinascarty, Co. Cork, birthplace of his great-great-grandfather William Ford. / Photo by Denis Boyle

By Patricia Harty, Editor-in-Chief
December / January 2012

“Our name is on every product that we sell, and that really gave us the determination to see this through.”

Founded in 1903, Ford Motor Company is one of the top corporations in the world, and one of a handful of American companies still owned by family.

“The company’s determination to survive is, in part, a reflection of the tenacity of the Ford family, which has rallied behind its appointed leader, William C. Ford, Jr. The current generation – with 13 cousins, including Bill Ford – has brought its children into the fold, and the family’s quarterly meetings now attract as many as 35 family members,” a writer for the New York Times  reported when the auto industry was on the brink of destruction in 2006.

“I think if they see Ford as a company trying to pull itself up by its own bootstraps, and making it on its own and pulling the right levers, I think that could be a positive for us,” Bill Ford said at the time. In retrospect, the family’s decision to borrow $23.6 billion, and put most of its assets, including the “blue oval,” up as collateral, proved to be a good one.  In October 2011, Ford announced its tenth consecutive profitable quarter. (Nearly all its profits – $1.65 billion – came from North America.) The company’s position was also strengthened in October, when it reached an agreement with the United Automobile Workers union, agreeing to invest $6.2 billion in its U.S. plants – total investment through 2015 would be $16 billion – and create 12,000 jobs over the next four years, in part by in-sourcing positions from other countries.

“As the nation’s economy remains stalled and uncertain, and its employment rate stagnates, we were able to win an agreement with Ford that will bring auto manufacturing jobs back to the United States from China, Mexico and Japan,” said UAW President Bob King.

Economists see Ford’s plan as having a positive ripple effect on the broader economy. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce hailed the news, saying “Let’s make this kind of balanced agreement in Detroit a foundation for moving forward toward bipartisan, job-creating policies in Washington.”

Ford’s leadership is hardly surprising when you look at the history of the company and its founder. Henry Ford revolutionized how people physically move around the country – and world. He revolutionized the workplace, particularly altering the way workers are paid and how much they earn. He also forever changed the oil and gas industries, organized labor and even the pace of road and highway construction.

Henry, whose father was an Irish immigrant from Cork, also had a major impact on social and economic conditions in Ireland, when he opened a plant in Cork in 1917, bringing 7,000 jobs to the area.

The Ford family connection to Ireland remains strong. Edsel Ford II and his family visited in 2004. Executive Chairman Bill Ford, the fourth generation to have a commanding role at the company, visited in August.

Bill was born in 1957 (his father, William Clay Ford Sr., in a fitting match, married Martha Parke Firestone of the famous tire family). He graduated from Princeton in 1979 having majored in history, where he wrote a senior thesis for which he had particularly personal insight: “Henry Ford and Labor: A Reappraisal.”  In 1979, in his early twenties, he began working for the Ford company.

Through the 1980s and early 1990s, Bill worked a number of mid-level executive positions at the company, both in the U.S. and Europe, when breakthroughs such as the S.U.V. sent Ford profits soaring.

By this time it was not even clear Bill Ford would spend his life working for his great-grandfather’s company. He dedicated much time and energy to the Detroit Lions football team, who made the NFL playoffs six times in the 1990s.

In 1999, however, Alex Trotman stepped down as Ford’s chairman of the board and Bill was elected to replace him. Then following the departure of CEO Jacques Nasser in 2001, Ford stepped in to rebuild and restore faith in the automaker. “I certainly never sought this job,” Ford told USA Today back in 2001. “But when I saw what was happening to our company, I thought I could help us.”

As CEO, Bill Ford introduced a series of environmentally friendly cars, and in 2005, he hired William McDonough to redevelop the once-decaying River Rouge manufacturing facility and turn it  into a sustainable operation with the largest green roof in the world.

It’s the mark of a good leader when he knows to move aside, and after five years as CEO, Ford decided that he needed someone to take over the company’s Way Forward restructuring plans. He found that person in Alan Mulally, Boeing’s senior executive officer, who took over as CEO on September 6, 2006.

Mulally, for his part, said he would not have accepted the job unless Bill Ford “made an absolute commitment to stay on as chairman.”

Since then, Ford and Mulally have faced their share of tough times, but industry analysts agree that the company is on the road to high productivity and profitability. Ford just announced a 13 percent increase in [November] sales over 2010.

Henry Ford left a good deal of his wealth to the Ford Foundation, which is no longer part of the Ford Company. The company does still support numerous charities through its Ford Fund, which invests in the arts, education and culture. The company has also raised $110 million for breast cancer research. Bill Ford doesn’t talk much about the charities he personally supports. It is, however, public knowledge that he established the William C. Ford, Jr. Scholarship Program – which provides scholarships for children of Ford workers in the U.S. He has donated  millions of his compensation to this scholarship program since 2005. He also is very supportive and takes an active role in children’s charities in the Detroit area.

This past November, Bill and his wife, Lisa, the mother of their four children, served as Grand Marshals of the Thanksgiving Day Parade in Detroit.

As the official vehicle of the parade, more than 40 Ford cars and trucks (including the F-Series Super Duty, Mustang and all-new Ford Focus Electric) participated in the festivities, pulling floats and carrying celebrities. Bill and Lisa rode in a blue Mustang convertible.

Earlier that month, Ford Motor Company and Ford Motor Company Fund partnered with the Parade Company to  launch a community outreach campaign, “Ford Driving Food Home for the Holidays and Beyond,” which will run through the end of February to support Michigan hungry families through the holidays and winter months.

“Our economy has gone through a rough period going back several years. And while there are encouraging signs that we’re coming back, many families are still struggling,” said Ford.

“Thanksgiving, the parade and the Detroit Lions have been such a big part of our family tradition throughout the years,” said Ford. “The parade really showcases our city in a great way, and Lisa and I are proud to be part of it.”

Also on Thanksgiving Day, the Detroit Lions played a gritty game against the unbeaten Green Bay Packers but lost 27-15. Still, the Lions right now are headed for their best season in a decade.  Similarly, after Ford Motor Company hit a number of bumps in the road, things are looking up for the company’s executive chairman who remains committed to both a profitable company and a strong environmental policy.

When I caught up with Bill Ford at the end of August, he had just retuned from his first trip to Ireland.

 

Tell me about your trip to Ireland.
It was a great trip. I took my whole family and we had a superb time. We started off in Dublin, my son is a huge soccer fan and we went to one of the Shamrock Rovers game. We did all the touristy things around Dublin.

Then we went down to Cork, which is where the Ford offices are. I met with all the Ford Ireland employees and then I went to a dealer reception. But probably the highlight of the trip was when we went to Ballinascarty which is where Henry Ford’s father, William Ford, emigrated from in 1847. We had lunch at the farm of our closest Irish relatives who we’d never met before and they are wonderful people. And then we went into town.

There’s not a lot there but the whole town turned out and they put on some music and some dancing. There’s a sculpture of a stainless steel Ford Model T in the town square and so we unveiled a plaque next to the Model T. The people couldn’t have been nicer. We also went to Galway because my kids wanted to go to a university town. We went to some pubs at night to listen to Irish music, and visited  the Cliffs of Moher. I loved the Ring of Kerry. Overall it was just a great trip and the sense of history we experienced was really pretty neat.

Do you mean the history in general or the history of the Fords?
Well, both actually. I was a history major at university and I read pretty much nothing but historical books and novels. So I’ve always been fascinated in Irish history. I mean, coming from a country where we have about slightly over 200 years of history, to see things like the Book of Kells, that’s pretty special.

Did you drive?
The whole way.

What did you drive?
Well, because there was a bunch of us we were in a Galaxy. If I had been there by myself I would have taken a Focus RX, which is one of our high-performance cars, but we took the Galaxy and it was fun. You know, one of the things I noticed is that there’s no suburban sprawl like we have here. You have the cities and then you immediately have the countryside. You don’t have any of the strip malls or the endless sprawl, which is really refreshing.

Would you go back again?

Tomorrow! Actually my family is already planning our next trip. It was wonderful. The people were so great.

How much had you known about the Ford family history before your trip?
Quite a bit because we have the Henry Ford Museum here in Michigan, which is one of the largest, most visited historical sites in the country. Henry Ford himself started this along with something called the Greenfield Village, which brought in a lot of birthplaces of important Americans at that time. He brought in the workshops of Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers, Harvey Firestone’s farm and the birthplaces of Noel Webster (who did the dictionary) and George Washington Carver’s birthplace. Henry Ford himself was really tuned into history, including his own history. And so I am very well steeped in the family history.

In Ireland, you talked about  people sticking together and the strength in Irish families.
When GM and Chrysler went bankrupt and we [Ford] fought our way through without [taking the bailout], I said over there that I think it was the Irish in us that kept us going. Because obviously the resilience of the Irish is legendary.

Your family as a unit stuck together and made that decision.
We absolutely did. We mortgaged everything to do that. Including the blue oval itself – our trademark. We even mortgaged that In retrospect, it was absolutely the right decision. But, yes, there were many sleepless nights.

Why was it important?
Well, for us the company was always much more than just a financial investment. It was and is an emotional and historical one as well. We take tremendous pride in what Ford has meant to people around the world over the last hundred years and what we continue to mean to people. That makes us a different kind of company and maybe even made us tougher and more resilient than others as we went through the tough times, because we never looked at Ford as just a financial instrument. It’s our heritage. It’s our name; our name is on every product that we sell and that gave us the determination to see this through.

Speaking of family, how are the Detroit Lions doing?
We’re going to have a good year this year. Talking about Irish Americans and football, we’ve got the Detroit Lions and Dan Rooney, who’s actually the ambassador to Ireland, now owns the Pittsburgh Steelers. Dan’s a very good guy.

Of course everybody is hoping you’ll invest in Ireland.
Ireland has a great, highly educated population and obviously has had a tech boom in its very recent history and that’s something to look at.

What’s the best career advice you were ever  given?
I’m not sure and I don’t really like to give any, but probably what my father told me when I was just leaving university. He asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I wanted to go work at Ford. He told me to make sure my heart is in it because if I was doing it just for him, or anyone else, I wouldn’t be doing myself or the company any good.

And obviously it worked out.
Well yes, but those first few years I still checked in with myself to see if it really what I wanted to do, and if I wanted to continue. But yes, over time absolutely.

Do you think your education in the humanities was useful in your business career?
I think it was incredibly useful. There’s a great need for technical training particularly in the U.S. as well, but even engineers have to have exposure to the humanities. First of all, being able to express yourself verbally and in writing is incredibly important as you enter the business world. You could have the greatest idea in the world, but if you can’t communicate it, it’s never going to be accepted. And I also think that whether it’s history or languages, they are all very useful no matter what field one ultimately goes into.

And in terms of knowledge of our history?
I think there’s two ways to look at it. One is the old adage that those who choose to ignore history are condemned to repeat it, and I think there’s a certain truth to that. Also, it really defines who we are today. It’s impossible to look at the issues of today – just look at the riots in London – if one doesn’t understand the sociological underpinnings of that, then there’s no way to understand what drove it and also what might solve it in the future. So understanding history really sets the table for understanding complex issues today. Look at the Middle East – how could you possibly begin to attempt to solve today’s issues in the Middle East without understanding the history there

I do find that a lot of reporting is very superficial and doesn’t begin to explain the history.
We live in a two-minute society. We live in information overload. Most people don’t take the time to digest a thoughtful article, they read the headlines and move on. I look at my own children and find that they get all their news online. My kids will come down to breakfast and I’ll say, do you want to see the paper and they’ll say no I already know all that, that all happened twelve hours ago, I logged on last night. And that’s how they get their news. In some respects, they’re much more current, but in other respects, they don’t read a lot of analysis.

I read you were a bit of a musician.
Wikipedia?

Yes. Wikipedia.
Here’s what happened. I have a guitar and I’m horrible at playing and the kids always groan whenever I play. So about four years ago, my daughter and her friend thought it’d be funny to make up all this stuff about me and put it on Wikipedia. And they did, including “he’s a great musician and has composed all these songs,” and next thing you know  people were using it in biographies. My kids think it’s hilarious because I was a trustee at Princeton and when I stepped down they gave me this very formal recognition in which they cited my musical prowess, which they had gotten off a Wikipedia page. The short answer is, I have no musical ability or talent. Having said that, I do like to listen to music, and I particularly have always loved Irish music. At home I would make the kids listen to The Dubliners and The Irish Rovers and a lot of the old traditional songs. I actually like bluegrass, which has been heavily influenced by Irish music. So yes I loved the music when I was there.

You are a committed environmentalist and I read that Henry Ford said that his first memory was of his father slowly and deliberately turning the plough around in order to avoid disturbing a bird’s nest.
He was a great naturalist and environmentalist, though the term wasn’t invented yet. He felt that in the production process you shouldn’t waste anything. For instance, we call it recycling, but what he did was he used all the wooden shipping crates and made them into frames for the vehicles or running boards for the cars, and what was left over he had compressed into charcoal and started his own charcoal company. Nothing was wasted. We call it being environmentally responsible; in his day he just felt he was being non-wasteful.

Maybe it came out of his father’s experience of the famine.
I suspect that’s right. Just like here my grandparents’ generation was heavily influenced by the Great Depression.

Can you talk a little bit about Fontinalis Partners. It seems interesting in terms of the future?
It’s an investment firm that I co-founded which is focused on providing transportation solutions for the future. It’s about helping ease the pressure of overpopulation and extreme urbanization around the globe. Because when you have that you have some unique personal mobility issues. Fontinalis Partners is trying to find young companies that are working to help solve that problem.

That sounds like an investment in America’s future.
Well, it’s not just America. We’re interested in a global approach because the issues are not unique to America.

Was it a difficult decision to step down and bring in Alan Mulally, another Irishman?
It’s been great. I took over in 2001 when we had been awash in red ink and I got us back to three years of profitability, but as I looked ahead I didn’t like what I saw coming at us. So I thought we’d have to do major restructuring, and culturally I would’ve been the wrong person to do it because of the relationship I have with the workers. But I looked for someone and found that someone in Alan. At the time everybody said, who is this guy, and why would you hire someone from an aircraft company? But I knew he was the right guy and he’s proven to be terrific. And yes he is another Irish American and I couldn’t wait to tell him about my trip there.

Ford Motor Company, to me, is a shining example of what a family and company can do.
Well, thank you so much. It is going well right now and those dark days are starting to fade a little bit, thankfully. It’s been a heck of a roller coaster. But we did things the right way. We did it ourselves, and now we’re back on the mend and it feels good.

Thank you, Mr. Ford.

 

A Timeline of the Fords:
In 1847, John Ford, his wife Tomasina and seven children, and widowed mother Rebecca left Ballinacarthy, Co. Cork on a ship bound for Grosse Ile, Cananda.  Tomasina did not survive the grueling journey.

From there the Fords traveled to Dearborn, Michigan, where John’s three brothers had emigrated in the 1830s. John bought an 8-acre farm from Henry Maybury, an old acquaintance from West Cork. Patrick Ahern from Fair Lane off Shandon Street in Cork City, had an adjacent farm. John’s son William met and fell in love with Patrick’s foster daughter, Mary Litogot. The two married on April 21, 1861, and it was agreed that the newlyweds would live at Fair Lane with Patrick and his wife, Margaret Ahern. On July 30, 1863, Mary gave birth to the Fords’ first son, Henry.

In 1914, the then hugely successful Henry Ford chose to build a 56-room mansion on a 1,300-acre tract of land two miles from his Dearborn birthplace. He named the estate “Fair Lane” after Patrick Ahern’s birthplace.

In the summer of 1912, Henry Ford made an important trip to reconnect with his Irish roots.
On another trip to Ireland in 1917, Henry Ford established Henry Ford & Son Ltd. It began as a private venture and later became a division of Ford Motor Company. As Ford historian Bob Kreipke explains: “Henry Ford’s family roots drew him to Ireland. He knew what he was able to do socially and economically in the United States, and he figured he could apply that model to the depressed area of Cork.” Ford employed 7,000 there until the assembly operations were closed in 1984.

For many of the Ford family descendants, the interest in their Irish roots remains strong. Edsel Ford II and his family visited the old homestead in Cork in 2004. This past summer,  William Clay Ford, Jr. and his family made a visit.

2 Responses to “Bill Ford:
The Man Behind the Trademark”

  1. [...] Click here to read Patricia Harty’s full interview with Bill Ford, Jr. [...]

  2. [...] Saturday, Bill Ford Jr., Irish America’s 2011 Business 100 Keynote Speaker, was joined by an excited and [...]

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