Can This Man Save The American Auto Industry?

Part rebel, part prince, Bill Ford believes a green revolution can fix his family's troubled company. But can he make cars you'll crave?

Published: 23-Jan-2006

In a makeshift ballroom at Ford Field, the Detroit Lions' stadium, a Beatles tribute band is playing I Want to Hold Your Hand, which has got the eite of Motor City moving and shaking, but not the hosts of the black-tie charity ball, William Clay Ford Jr. and his wife Lisa. In fact, the 48-year-old CEO of Ford Motor Co. is getting teased by his brother-in-law about his ineptitude on the dance floor. Turning to a reporter, Bill owns up to it. "You don't want to see that," the Ford scion says with a laugh. But he gets serious when the topic turns to his day job and what lies just around the corner for his employees: a sweeping restructuring that will bring tens of thousands of layoffs. "Honestly, I don't worry about myself," he says. "I mean, I can screw up my life, and it doesn't really matter"--a fair observation for a man who is an heir to a billion-dollar fortune. "But what I worry about is the impact all of this has on others. We're going to do what we have to do, but it's just very, very sad."

Why did Bill Ford, great-grandson of the auto company's founder, take on this responsibility when he could have left it to hired professionals? It helps to understand that he is a man of epic contradictions. His family practically invented the auto industry, not to mention blue-collar consumerism. Brilliant, cantankerous Henry Ford made the first mass-produced car, the Model T, and paid workers enough so they could afford to buy one. That makes great-grandson Bill industrial royalty: he comes from a competitive, dynastic clan that cannot be separated from the nameplate on your Mustang. But he also has a complex, even squishy side; he's a passionate environmentalist who has studied Buddhist philosophy and thinks a lot about the future of the world.

So while he worries about his employees, Ford Motor's boss believes--belatedly, perhaps--that nothing short of a cultural revolution will save the family firm, which, like General Motors, seems to have all but lost a 30-year war with Toyota and other foreign companies for dominance of the U.S. auto market. This week he is unveiling a plan, which he calls the "Way Forward," a last-ditch effort to save the company by taking some big chances. Ford has surrendered market share in the U.S. but figures that a smaller, more innovative company can stir more passion among its customers.

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