Bill Ford: Requiem for a Lightweight

Andrew Dederer
by Andrew Dederer
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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.

Andrew Dederer
Andrew Dederer

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  • Zanary Zanary on Dec 01, 2006

    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.

  • Jthorner Jthorner on Dec 02, 2006

    "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??????

  • Carsofchaos The bike lanes aren't even close to carrying "more than the car lanes replaced". You clearly don't drive in Midtown Manhattan on a daily like I do.
  • Carsofchaos The problem with congestion, dear friends, is not the cars per se. I drive into the city daily and the problem is this:Your average street in the area used to be 4 lanes. Now it is a bus lane, a bike lane (now you're down to two lanes), then you have delivery trucks double parking, along with the Uber and Lyft drivers also double parking. So your 4 lane avenue is now a 1.5 lane avenue. Do you now see the problem? Congestion pricing will fix none of these things....what it WILL do is fund persion plans.
  • FreedMike Many F150s I encounter are autonomously driven...and by that I mean they're driving themselves because the dips**ts at the wheel are paying attention to everything else but the road.
  • Tassos A "small car", TIM????????????This is the GLE. Have you even ever SEEN the huge thing at a dealer's??? NOT even the GLC,and Merc has TWO classes even SMALLER than the C (The A and the B, you guessed it? You must be a GENIUS!).THe E is a "MIDSIZED" crossover, NOT A SMALL ONE BY ANY STRETCH OF THE IMAGINATION, oh CLUELESS one.I AM SICK AND TIRED OF THE NONSENSE you post here every god damned day.And I BET you will never even CORRECT your NONSENSE, much less APOLOGIZE for your cluelessness and unprofessionalism.
  • Stuki Moi "How do you take a small crossover and make it better?Slap the AMG badge on it and give it the AMG treatment."No, you don't.In fact, that is specifically what you do NOT do.Huge, frail wheels, and postage stamp sidewalls, do nothing but make overly tall cuvs tramline and judder. And render them even less useful across the few surfaces where they could conceivably have an advantage over more properly dimensioned cars. And: Small cuvs have pitiful enough fuel range as it is, even with more sensible engines.Instead, to make a small CUV better, you 1)make it a lower slung wagon. And only then give it the AMG treatment. AMG'ing, makes sense for the E class. And these days with larger cars, even the C class. For the S class, it never made sense, aside from the sheer aural visceralness of the last NA V8. The E-class is the center of AMG. Even the C-class, rarely touches the M3.Or 2) You give it the Raptor/Baja treatment. Massive, hypersophisticated suspension travel allowing landing meaningful jumps. As well as driving up and down wide enough stairs if desired. That's a kind of driving for which a taller stance, and IFS/IRS, makes sense.Attempting to turn a CUV into some sort of a laptime wonder, makes about as much sense as putting an America's Cup rig atop a ten deck cruiseship.