Key Notes

Left to right: William C. Ford, Jr., Brian Moynihan, and Anne Sweeney.

Irish America’s keynote speakers are making headlines.

Three of Irish America’s former keynote speakers have been in the news recently, attesting to the enduring relevance of all our honorees and the range of activities they involve themselves in. Time to catch up with our former keynotes.

Bill Ford Defends Unions

In an interview on CNBC’s  “Squawk Box,” Irish America’s 2011 Business 100 Keynote Speaker William Ford, Jr. unwaveringly credited the United Automobile Workers (UAW) union with getting Ford and the American auto industry out of the “dark days” of the financial crisis.

“When our times were darkest in the ‘06-‘09 time frame, the UAW really helped our industry get back on its feet and helped Ford get back on its feet. The head of the UAW then, Ron Gettelfinger, I don’t think gets enough credit for helping save Ford Motor Company.”

Despite the fact that the UAW is often held culpable for the financial troubles of other car companies like GM and Chrysler, Ford defended their role in preventing Ford’s bankruptcy, though refused to speak about the union’s relationship with other manufacturers.

“There’s no question that at Ford it’s a two-way street. Over a multi-year period they were the ones who were asking for more but we were the ones who gave it. Then, when we got into a really tough period, I sat down with Ron and I said, ‘You have to help me save the Ford Motor Company so we didn’t have to go through bankruptcy, so we didn’t have to get a federal bailout,'” Ford said. “And he did that.”

Talking specifics, Ford cited both the healthcare concessions that the UAW made, as well as improvements they made in the workforce itself: “They took the healthcare and they put it in a VEBA [Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association] on their books; he helped make us more competitive in the plants; and as a result we’re growing now in North America.”

“We’ve had a great relationship with our workforce and I don’t look at them as union or non-union; I look at them as Ford workers,” he said. “We have a lot of second-, third-, fourth-, fifth- and even sixth-generation workers at Ford in our plants, and they love our company. They’re the ones that pulled us through the dark days.”

Brian Moynihan: “It was worth it”

Brian Moynihan, CEO of Bank of America and 2009 Irish America Wall Street 50 Keynote Speaker, told the San Francisco Business Times that the financial crisis has been good for Bank of America, forcing it to evaluate its practices and innovate the way it provides financial services.

“Whatever it took for us to get here was worth it,” Moynihan said, admitting he also knows, “We need to drive organic growth by doing more business with every customer.” This echoes the long-standing practice of Wells Fargo, which grew by selling more services to existing customers, rather than focusing on mergers and acquisitions. The practice, reports the Business Times, is now widely implemented across numerous banks.

Still, the top priority issue for Bank of America, Moynihan said, was delinquent mortgages, because it’s such a large part of the bank’s cost structure.

In tackling that issue and more, Bank of America and Moynihan have been successful. Since 2008 the bank has modified two million mortgages, brought the number of delinquent mortgages from its peak of one million down 70 percent, tripled its number of mobile banking users to 15 million, and returned to a pre-financial crisis pace of credit card sales.

“It wasn’t that our people were standing still thinking, ‘I hope all this gets done.’ They were hard at work,” he emphasized.

“If you got up in the morning every day and saw our team and its capabilities to help people with their financial lives, you’d see that it’s second to none,” he said. “Our legacy will be built on what we do next, not what we did last year.”

Anne Sweeney Steps Down from Disney

In an exclusive interview with The Hollywood Reporter, 2010 Irish America Business 100 Keynote Speaker Anne Sweeney announced she was leaving the Walt Disney Company late March. Sweeney has been at Disney since 1996 and will be stepping down as Co-Chair of Disney Media and President of Disney-ABC Television Group in order to pursue a career in television directing, calling it her “underlying passion.”

Speaking to the Reporter, Sweeney said, “I’ve often said [to others], ‘Do the things that scare you the most.’ I’ve always believed that you learn your entire life and you should never pigeonhole yourself. You should also be open to your passion and mine is the creative process and to be a learner again.”

Sweeney, who previously worked for Nickelodeon and FX, is no stranger to starting afresh, but she realizes the change from an executive position to creative one will require her attention. “The countless times I’ve been on our sets, that makes me a set visitor, that does not make me a director or a producer. So this is the place I intend to start. And I know I have a lot of shadowing to do. I have a lot of learning.

In April, when Sweeney was honored at an Alliance for Children’s Rights fundraiser, ABC’s late-night host Jimmy Kimmel recognized the opportunity to poke fun at his soon-to-be old boss: “she said she’s willing to start at the bottom to learn the ropes, so if anyone here has a Bar Mitzvah or a birthday party, the soon-to-be former president of ABC is available.”

For Sweeney, this is the fulfillment of a life-long goal. “You don’t want to wake up in three or four years and look in the rearview mirror and say, “Oh, I never did that.” And I’m not going to wake up in three years and say I never immersed myself, I never tried.”

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