Bill Ford: Requiem for a Lightweight

Andrew Dederer
by Andrew Dederer
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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  • 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??????

  • MaintenanceCosts Despite my hostile comments above I really can't wait to see a video of one of these at the strip. A production car running mid-eights is just bats. I just hope that at least one owner lets it happen, rather than offloading the car from the trailer straight into a helium-filled bag that goes into a dark secured warehouse until Barrett-Jackson 2056.
  • Schurkey Decades later, I'm still peeved that Honda failed to recall and repair the seat belts in my '80 Civic. Well-known issue with the retractors failing to retract.Honda cut a deal with the NHTSA at that time, to put a "lifetime warranty" on FUTURE seat belts, in return for not having to deal with the existing problems.Dirtbags all around. Customers screwed, corporation and Government moves on.
  • Bullnuke An acquaintance of mine 50+ years ago who was attending MIT (until General Hershey's folks sent him his "Greetings" letter) converted an Austin Mini from its staid 4 cylinder to an electric motored fuel cell vehicle. It was done as a project during his progression toward a Master Degree in Electrical Engineering. He told me it worked pretty well but wasn't something to use as a daily driver given the technology and availability of suitable components of the time. Fueling LH2 and LOX was somewhat problematic. Upon completion he removed his fuel cell and equipment and, for another project, reinstalled the 4 banger but reassembled it without mechanical fasteners using an experimental epoxy adhesive instead which, he said, worked much better and was a daily driver...for awhile. He went on to be an enlisted Reactor Operator on a submarine for a few years.
  • Ajla $100k is walking around money but this is almost certainly the last Dodge V8 vehicle and it's likely to be the most powerful factory-installed and warrantied pushrod engine ever. So there is some historical applicability to things even if you have an otherwise low opinion of the Challenger.And, like I said up thread, if you still hate it will be gone soon anyway.
  • Carlson Fan GM completely blew the marketing of the Volt. The commercials were terrible. You'd swear they told the advertising company to come up with an ad that would make sure no one went out and shopped a Volt after seeing it!...........LOL My buddy asked why I bought a car that only goes 40 miles on a charge? That pretty much sums up how confusing and uninformative the advertising was.