By on November 29, 2006

corporate_bill_ford_jr_ford_motor_co22.jpg Reporters love newsmakers who address their problems without buzzwords and spin. Such people are rare birds in the automotive industry, a veritable snake-oil pit of truth-stretching and delusional thinking. For car hacks desperate for quotes sans Kool-Aid, William “Bill” Ford has been a godsend. Whenever the Ford family scion addresses The Blue Oval’s challenges or an automakers’ responsibilities in a modern society, Mr. Bill speaks with clarity, vision and passion. Now that Ford’s new CEO Alan Mulally has gathered-up the reins of power, it’s a good time to assess Bill Ford’s tenure at the top.

To do so, you have to try to separate what Mr. Bill said and what Ford did– or didn’t do. For example, Mr. Bill publicly pledged to raise the company’s SUV’s gas mileage; but precious little was done to make it so. Mr. Bill promised to dramatically ramp-up production of gas – electric hybrids– only to bow to market reality and back off. Not to put too fine a point on it, Mr. Bill’s leadership at The Ford Motor Company yielded a great deal of sound bites and quietude signifying nothing.

In truth, turning around Ford’s fortunes would have required four accomplishments from Mr. Bill: peace in the boardroom, a far-reaching product plan, successful negotiations with Ford stakeholders and a zero tolerance campaign against bureaucratic in-fighting. As the duly appointed representative of the Ford family’s voting block, Mr. Bill had the boardroom battles covered. But Ford’s main man lacked the talent and insight to do the “vision” thing, and the patience and temperament to achieve consensus or kick ass.

Like most large industrial companies, automobile manufacturers are a viper’s nest of entrenched bureaucratic interests. Each company has its own special maze. GM’s is endlessly bureaucratic. Ford’s is personality driven. Right from the start, Bill Ford was strangely reluctant to force through necessary changes in product or production– perhaps in an effort to avoid “playing favorites.” As a result, America’s second largest automaker spent four years in the wilderness, with no overriding plan and little sense of priority.

As far as Mr. Bill’s strategic impact is concerned, it’s hard to discern a consistent theme running through FoMoCo's operations during his time at the helm. Replacements and new models arrived at the usual rate (e.g. slowly), with the usual hit or miss ratio. The Fusion appears to be a sales success (but may be cannibalizing the 500 to do so). The Five Hundred hit the market with a thud. Its Freestyle cousin lasted a year. Meanwhile, once-successful models like the Focus, Ranger, Crown Vic (and its derivatives) and Escape were neglected well past the point of return on investment.

Failing to provide new insights or product ideas is no crime for a chief executive. The last true pistonhead with the name Ford was Edsel, and Henry I was the only chief executive you could truly call a visionary (as well as anti-Semitic and crazy). A leader's real job is to find and nurture good ideas and people, and here Mr. Bill was completely out of his depth. William Clay Ford Jr. may have been born a king, but he never mastered the talents of a kingmaker.

Mr. Bill’s lack of leadership ability may reflect the collateral damage created during his ascendancy to the top job. Originally, Ford was to be the chairman of FoMoCo’s board while Lebanese-born Jacques Nasser (a.k.a. “Jac the Knife”) dragged the company into the multi-media age. Nasser had tremendous drive, a lot of ideas (some of which actually involved cars) and, of course, many enemies.

After a couple of bad financial quarters (which Ford probably wishes it could have back about now) and the Firestone-Explorer debacle, Nasser got the boot. Bill Ford got the nod because he was a Ford, and, equally important, he wasn’t Nasser. But without an “idea man” to lean on, Mr. Bill put his company on autopilot. (He was occasionally spotted cruising the aisles at Barnes & Noble.) If Mr. Bill saw the need for change, he didn’t have the moxie to get ‘er done.

The best thing that can be said about Bill Ford: he didn’t let his ego get in the way of what [he perceived to be] was best for the company that bears his name. When he finally realized that The Blue Oval needed a top-flight CEO/turnaround specialist, he went out and got one. We are now told that Mr. Bill has surrendered power to ex-Boeing exec Alan Mulally and stepped aside. His new role: Mulally’s champion, a corporate figurehead and the final protector of the Ford family’s financial interests.

We can assume that Ford’s recent $18b gamble on its future– mortgaging the farm for operating cash– received Bill Ford’s blessing. Ultimately, the impact of that decision will determine the success or failure of Mr. Bill’s administration.

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30 Comments on “Bill Ford: Requiem for a lightweight...”

  • avatar
    Terry Parkhurst

    Snow has hit Seattle with a dusting of two inches and more is expected tonight; there is still ice on the road and most people are out driving their SUVs or Subarus (the official car of Seattle, or so it seems). I’ve been driving a 2007 Lincoln Mk-Z sedan with all-wheel-drive and have been pleasantly surprised, most especially with how the AWD interacts with the brakes on hard-packed ice – no accidents yet. Which brings me back to Bill Ford. I heard him speak to a small room filled with journalists of all ilks, shortly after he took over the reigns. There were business page reporters; but the bulk were auto writers. He seemed sincerely interested in making Ford a more “environmentally responsible” company (as I recall his words of over 7 years ago). We were all given a booklet on how Ford was attempting to do that. Said book also had information on things such as the then new Ford Excursion. There seemed to be a disconnect. Many years ago, in the aftermath of World War II, Ford was floundering. That’s when “the Deuce,” Henry Ford II took over the reigns, after the first Henry Ford finally passed away. It led to the introduction of the 1949 Ford, affectionately called “the shoebox” by hot rodders and custom car people. So it all comes back to product. Somebody at the top, whomever it might be, has to grasp the lesson of those post war years and hit the marketplace hard with cars – forget the trucks and even the “crossovers” for a while – people get excited about. It’s that simple, and yet, that hard.

  • avatar

    Hey Terry, I live in the Seattle area too, oddly enough my BMW 325 is doing fine in this stuff (of course Seattle shut down its’ Metro bus service at the first sign of snow..). Go figure. But, back to F, their new cash line is secured, an oddity in an industry that has long been able to use the commercial paper market for short term cash needs. Alan is truly betting the company on products that will show up in the showroom sometime in 2010. The problem with F is that the 2010 Fords are not going to be competing against 2006 Hondas/Toyotas/etc.

    Bill Ford has suffered from a common malady of old line firms, entrepreneurial types are shoved out the door while the place holders cement themselves into positions of authority. The brilliant turnaround of Ford in the mid 80’s to early 90’s should not be ignored or underestimated, but like Smith’s journey into non-auto businesses in the 80’s has doomed GM, so F’s foray into PAG was another move more related to ego gratification than anything else. Roger didn’t like cars and Bill doesn’t really seem to like the middle class. It would be like Wal-Mart deciding that they would rather appeal to Nordstrom’s clientele. If Bill really felt for his true customers the Taurus and the Grand Marquis would still be around.

  • avatar

     I'd hoped this article would have insight, actually mention things that have been positives…but it's that same old picture of a confused family heir accomplishing nothing. Yet, the last two car launches (Five Hundred, Fusion) have had very little in the way of quality issues, less even than their (gasp!) Japanese counterparts! Hell, even CR rated the Fusion tops…on Bill Ford's watch. Never mentioned. Funny, that. The new V6? The "Lion" diesel? The upcoming "BOSS" V8? His signature brought them around. He also recognized the importance of the Mustang to the company, and it's continuing to sell well. I'll happily agree that he played far too conservatively, but that only makes him as guilty as the other domestic heads, who all were unprepared for the Japanese horsepower war, the media's absolute execution of Detroit, and finally the inevitable and drastic rise in fuel prices that hurt the truck/SUV cash cow so badly. He blew some calls, was way too careful on others…but the way his positive impacts get utterly ignored is shameful.

  • avatar
    Glenn A.

    Ford’s biggest problem in-company is the historical problem it has with non-Ford executives being treated so abysmally.

    Ironically it started with Henry Ford the original killing his own son with constant criticism and back-stabbing “to make him tougher”. Edsel Ford died of a broken heart, stomach cancer and undulant fever from unpasteurized milk off Ford farms, because Henry the genius was so ‘genius’ that he could not see how pasturization could benefit the public, and he enjoyed the taste of raw milk “like on the farm when he was a kid” (again, ironically, he hated the farm when he was on it).

    A very short continuing history includes how Bunky Knudsen was booted, then not long after, Lee Iacocca, then latterly, Jaque Nasser.

    Well, Ford family, good luck with continuing to run the company into the ground. How long are you going to leave Mulally in control?

    I’m guessing he’ll be gone before 2009 and Ford Motor Company may well be history by 2010.

    Ford should have stuck to it’s knitting and stayed a family company in fact instead of trying to play big money on the stock market by listing on the stock exchange in 1956 (probably in order to get the money for the EDSEL automobile fiasco).

  • avatar
    Steven T.

    If these were ordinary times Bill might have gotten through with only a few scratches.

    Alas, Ford needed dramatic change. I think that Bill had a better sense of what was needed than he has been given credit for, e.g., his enviro background undoubtedly helped him realize that Ford’s dependence upon big trucks and SUVs was highly problematic.

    Bill’s fatal flaw was that he wasn’t a strong executive. Unlike Henry Ford II, he didn’t have the toughness to impose a direction on the company AND the tradeskills to implement that vision in such a far-flung and complex enterprise.

    It takes a special set of tradeskills to be an effective executive of a large corporation. Some of these tradeskills can be learned, but others cannot. It doesn’t appear that Bill had the aptitude. At least he realized this.

    I hope the Ford family learned something from this experience.

  • avatar

    You really hit the nail on the head:

    ” Alan is truly betting the company on products that will show up in the showroom sometime in 2010. The problem with F is that the 2010 Fords are not going to be competing against 2006 Hondas/Toyotas/etc. ”

    No doubt we’ll see some great product from Ford in 4 years, but by then Honda and Toyota will be another generation ahead. Their ability to bring out a new model every 4 years that is improved in every major way is killing the domestics.

    The Fusion is a fine car, and on par with today’s Accord and last year’s Camry. But Honda is 10 months away from a new and improved Accord, and you Ford can’t keep up. All they can do is hope Mazda and Volvo can keep pace, and then copy. Not good enough.

  • avatar

    “The Fusion is a fine car, and on par with today’s Accord and last year’s Camry”

    Perhaps mechanically but to my eye the Fusion is Macys and the Accord is Nordstroms.

    The Accord looks like it just pulled out of valet parking and the Fusion out of the rental lot.

    Lots of other bad analogies I could use (pearls vs rhinestones) but the Fusion is a 23K car looking like a 23K car and the Accord is a 27K car looking like a 45K car.

    The inablility of US auto designers to come up with designs and trim levels best characterized as “understated elegance” will cripple even the best engineering.


  • avatar
    Terry Parkhurst

    Hello to fellow Seattle resident, Cliff G. Hope the BMW keeps you out of a ditch. In the period from 1985 through ’90, Donald Peterson, who’d graduated from the University of Washington’s Engineering School, was CEO of Ford Motor Company and allowed $3 billion (USD) to be put into the development of the Ford Taurus. I don’t know, but since he was and is an automotive enthusiast, maybe we have him to thank for the engine in the late (and largely unlamented) Ford Taurus SHO (now surviving in a more formidable state-of-tune within the engine bay of the Volvo XC90 V8). Most likely, the 1999 Ford Taurus was his baby.
    Mr. Peterson is now a chair on the Advisory Board of the University of Washington. Maybe he could help Mulally (sic), or at least do a conference call, from time to time?

  • avatar

    fords problem is that no one is buying huge suv’s any more

  • avatar

    Mullally talking to Peterson would be a nice idea, I continue to have the heebee jeebees about the lack of car enthusiasts at the top of the pyramid at Ford. I am confused about what happened to Don in the ’90s, the later Taurus was just rental fodder from the very beginning. I think he forgot just how amazing the redesigned Thunderbird and Taurus looked in 1985 and couldn’t quite figure out how to do it again. Or, maybe since Ford didn’t appear to be on the precipice in 1997, it was felt it wasn’t necessary. Besides which money needed to be spent on the Jaguar X sedan (was there not one adult in the room when that got greenlighted?). GAAAAHHHH.

  • avatar

    Starting offtopic, everyone stopped learning how to drive at some stage. I drove a 2002 ‘vette through the worst weather that the mid-west threw at me- 25k in 12 months. Driving big torque, RWD, on low profile run-flats in a snowstorm from Chicago to Madison, WI was interesting but not particularly scary. Without the percieved security of AWD you tend to overcompensate and drive very very carefully, in 5th and 6th gears and with a very delicate right foot. Morons in giant, insanely heavy, 4WD Lincoln Navigators blasting along at 80 appear not to understand that 4WD will get you going but doesn’t do a thing to help you stop. I frequently had time to consider the serious problem that vast weight and a high center of gravity becomes as I cruised genteelly past upside down SUVs being extracted from ditches.

    Ontopic- Mr Ford might have relinquished control but it has probaby taken him a bit long to figure out he is a mite over his head.

  • avatar

    Bill Ford didn’t create this mess, but he also did precious little to clean it up. Sure the Fusion is popular, but it’s volume doesn’t even replace the Taurus. Yipee, one factory in Mexico is busy building a reskinned Mazda 6. Meanwhile the Volvo based Five Hundred and Freestyle are a failure and Ford has quit the minivan business all together. Ford got punch drunk on easy profits from the Explorer, Expedition, Et All and forgot to keep the entire product line fresh. You don’t see Toyota or Honda making that rookie mistake, do you?

    Since all Fords now start with F, Bill’s grade is Failure. In easy times he might have coasted through the job as a figurehead and delegator. These are not easy times and he seems to have done quite a job of sending talented managers packing in the past several years.

    I highly doubt that the Man from Boeing is going to be able to set the ship right … and I hope to be proven wrong!


    PS What the **** was the whole Ford GT effort all about? There were never enough of them around to even build showroom traffic and the entire project was outsourced. In the end, who cares? What a waste of time and money.

  • avatar

    Ford (under Nasser) bet the company on big SUV’s and lost the bet. End of story. Green Bill didn’t trust his (correct) instincts and let Jac place the losing bet.

    Peterson bet the company on the Taurus, and won. Ford had the best chance of long term success against the Japanese in the mid to late 80’s, but pissed it all away (see above).

    Peterson was gone by the second gen. Taurus. Red Poling had taken over by then.

  • avatar
    Terry Parkhurst

    Well JT, I myself am wondering what the Ford GT was all about. As many people who read this web site might know, there were problems with the aluminum front suspension pieces cracking – some new process of treating the aluminum, copied from Japanese companies, but flawed in execution. People with expensive – to me, even $149,500 (list – very rarely priced there) is that – GT sports car are not impressed by instant recalls. Then, they start to build it correctly, yet kill the project. I agree: they needed one showroom car for every Ford dealer, or at least any one in a major American city; but that’s past.
    As far as Don Peterson not knowing how to replicate the mid-1980s Thunderbird and such, well that doesn’t seem to match his job title. The exterior design requires good industrial designers. He needed to find them; as an engineer himself, he always was looking at the car, from the bottom up – not necessarily a bad thing, for starts. As Bruce Burdick, an instructor at the Art Center when I was there (for a couple of years) once said, “Industrial designers do what the engineers don’t think to do.”
    In the late Seventies, maybe early Eighties – memory fails here – Fortune magazine had a cover story: “Does Ford make the ugliest cars in the industry?” They got beyond that, certainly. But the past few years, it has been hit and miss. I wonder, more than the Ford GT, what exactly was the deal with that two-seater Thunderbird?

  • avatar

    One of the enduring dilemmas of management science is that the middle managers and the rank and file often know best what’s wrong in the organization but rarely feel safe in telling the top managers what’s wrong so they can fix it. I don’t know if that’s what is happening at Ford but it might be.

  • avatar
    jerry weber

    If Bill Ford was giving a well run company he might have been able to keep the ship level and running foreward. But the disfunctional mess of ford was not for any nice guy to tangle with. (on the orther hand if ford was running right, they would never have offered the job to him.) So it was a loose loose situation for all concerned. What scares me is so many bad years or reigns of CEO’s with so few good hits during these periods. I don’t think the competitors have left ford the profits in any ‘super hit” they may stumble onto to hit one out of the park and pay all their bills. It is now a game of several good models each selling well and making a single digit profit to add to the pot. Remember each negative product takes money out of the pot. Do we need to list the companies that are losing money from their poker pots on a regular basis?

  • avatar

    A few considerations for people that need to look deeper into this issue:

    1. The Fusion hasn’t replaced the Taurus’ sales numbers…but it sells mostly to retail customers for retail profits, as opposed to the Taurus which was lowballed to fleets in huge numbers. That’s the TRUTH…and what the site’s all about, right?

    2. Ford hired a pretty stout design team, but their impact is still really to be seen. The Reflex is one example of directions being studied. Again, I wonder if anyone will remember this in the avalanche of “why he sucks” articles.

    3. For those wondering why Ford did the GT…it was to show that they COULD do the GT. When that project got rolling, Ford’s car offerings were the shambles left behind by Nasser and Ford needed a shot in the arm. When things look bleakest, do something bold and unforseen! The result-minus the early gremlins that were overblown to a silly degree-is a car that still is a phenomenal performer and harkens back to when Ford slapped the world’s best around 4 years running at LeMans.

  • avatar
    Steven T.

    Terry, that’s a great question about the T-Bird. Styling is, of course, subjective. One could argue that the two-seater had a reasonable mix of retro and modern. Where I thought the concept was an obvious dud from the outset was:

    1) How on earth did Ford think they had a business case for a two seater in the first place, and

    2) Why did they even think of putting the T-Bird on such a large and heavy platform when the design would have worked quite well if strunk-wrapped onto a modified Mazda RX-8 platform and perhaps given the Yamaha V8.

    Instead of creating another instance classic, Ford spent a lot of money on the world’s biggest, fattest two seater. This made no sense given that they axed the better selling four seater because of cost reasons.

  • avatar

    Actually, I agree with most of the criticism of the T-Bird…and feel that as a true 4-person convertible, it would have done much better. However, the TBird has always been a good-sized car, not a lightweight sportster. Better Lincoln had adapted the LS chassis for a T-Bird harkening to ’58/’59, which were quite successful for there time.

  • avatar

    Fords problems with the new bird were that the dreaded “nasser” regime developed it, and the new regime ignored it, didnt advertise it. and didnt know how to market it.
    Thing is, you take your 40K Tbird to the dealer, and they treat you like its a taurus, and they work on so few of them (Lincoln LS platform) , that i had to print out the TSB’s myself when i brought it in. It’s a great car, when it runs, which is… often. Typical of current ford thinking, I have had it into the dealer 8 times for water inrusion into the engine compartment causing the Coil-On-Plugs to short out, and a field enginerr from ford could never be bothered to look at it.
    The service manager actially accused me of WASHING the car! I actually asked him, in a calm voice, if the t-bird was meant to be a dry-clean only car.

    anyway, im a ford brat, I dont work for the company, but my father and grand father did, i work in detroit, which means, indirectly, i work for ALL of the big 2.5, and their suppiers….. and i doubt i will ever buy another ford that was built after JFK was president. Even my father dumped all his ford stock, he doesnt think he will live long enough to see a turn around.

    I hope he is wrong, i hope Ford will wow me with something, anything. Bring the europen fords over, badge em as mercurys, hell build em here, but the domestic ford line, and the commitment to service is crap, in my experiance.

  • avatar

    Dry clean only! Oh, that is rich… good stuff!

  • avatar

    I agree some good things happened under Bill’s watch that are overlooked, ie. re-org back into backbone organizations rather than program teams. But, there is plenty of evidence of missing leadership. The Boss engine was cancelled and re-started so many times the wasted engineering hours probably could’ve saved an assembly plant. Ditto Lion diesel. Bringing over a B car isn’t as easy as it sounds but why let the Focus languish as it has? Or the Ranger? Even with modest refreshes those vehicles could be helping Ford’s cafe #’s right now rather than leaving it as the worst in overall fuel economy. The death of the dew98 platform after 1 cycle yet another example.

  • avatar

    The dew98 platform was one of NAsser’s worst leftovers…it was expensive and essentially inflexible, so it wasn’t price-realistic for widespread use.

    Absolutely ridiculous in a time where the Accord’s chassis is under cars, a truck, vans, and SUVs and the Camry’s is likewise spread about. The CD3 and D3 chassis look to get spread into many uses for Ford…but again, time was lost and I’m sure that by the time the product gets out, Alan Mulally gets the credit. I like Alan, he’s been straighforward and makes a good foil to the Mark Fields California-boy approach.

    I’ll never claim that Bill Ford jr. is perfect, but I don’t see columnists looking for positives very hard, and the resulting columns are borderline identical and lacking in content at the same time.

  • avatar

    Great cover photo. That’s right up there with Michael Dukakis riding in the tank, looking like Rockie the Flying Squirrel.

  • avatar
    jerry weber

    Zanary says the fusion sells retail and the taurus to fleets. Well it wasn’t always that way. The origional taurus sold number for years and mostly to individuals it was a highly desired car ahead of camry and accord. It was ford who turned it into first a space ship replica, and then a low budget rental fill in to keep the plants busy. Who was at the controls of the last body change and all of that oval stuff? Why wasn’t the car incrementally improved? How do you ever get a number one car back when your so far in the toilet? Where were all of these execs when these cars were signed off (golfing?)Who was watching the store at ford for the last 10 years? I like bob luttz’s comment about the last taurus, “it wasn’t professional”. That means it was amateur like designed in a garage in an alley? Ford paid someone to “professionally” design the thing. For good measure who signed off on the pontiac “aztec” at gm? Must have been rotating executives who got around detroit in the nineties.

  • avatar

    My personal theory on the ‘all oval’ Taurus is that the design office mislaid the only straightedge they had, and were forced to use their set of French curves to do the whole thing. Nothing else makes any sense.

  • avatar
    Steven T.

    As I recall, in the run up to the Aztek’s introduction GM bragged about how it had transcended its past tendency to rely so heavily on focus groups that its products turned out too bland.

    Well, the Aztek certainly wasn’t colorless and odorless. Looking back in auto history, Detroit has had a tendency to shoot oneself in the foot while trying to be “creative” (e.g., think 1974 AMC Matador coupe and 1971 Buick Riviera).

  • avatar

    Speaking of the All Ovals Taurus, Mary Walton wrote a fascinating book about it’s development process. I remember reading it back in 1997 and thinking that Ford was pretty much toast. It wasn’t intended to be a Ford bashing book, but reading it made very clear how messed up the way of thinking and decision making was. The all ovals design look was thought to be a brilliant idea by the designers involved. The book is now in print in a second edition:

  • avatar

    On the topic of the Taurus…

    …I’ve posted on a lot of boards for years that the funeral and wake for that car were in 1996. It had already been a story in car magazines that the Taurus’ retail sales were dropping hard compared to the surging Camry/Accord, and the ersatz Jag/oval Taurus made it worse. It took real blindness to make that styling nightmare AND do so while cutting some aspects of interior space.

    If the updated version from circa 2000 had been offered in 1996, it might have gone better. I find the refreshed version far better looking than the fish-faced monster of a decade back.

    This is a perfect example of a mess started by Trotman, continued almost untouched by Nasser, and deposited unceremoniously in Bill Ford’s lap. I think he did the right thing in abandoning a name that had defined mediocrity for years and starting fresh with the Five Hundred/Fusion.

  • avatar

    “I think he did the right thing in abandoning a name that had defined mediocrity for years and starting fresh with the Five Hundred/Fusion”

    I suspect the only real reason that the Taurus/Sable names were killed was that they don’t start with “F” and “M”.

    Why has Ford/Lincoln/Mercury killed every name off (Mustang being the only exception)? Where it’s cars all so horrible that they want us to forget them??????

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