Bill Ford: Requiem for a Lightweight
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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