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Bill Ford's challenge: Stay lean, hungry and innovative


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Bill Ford's challenge: Stay lean, hungry and innovative

Bryce G. Hoffman / The Detroit News


Bill Ford Jr. likes going to work these days.

After years of gloom, employees are smiling again. Ford Motor Co.'s cars and crossovers are winning big awards. And his company, which many had given up for dead just a few years ago, not only survived one of the worst crises in the history of the auto industry, but eschewed a taxpayer bailout, avoided bankruptcy and rebounded back to profitability.

Bill Ford has said little publicly about his role in the turnaround -- until now. In an interview this week with The Detroit News, the great-grandson of Henry Ford spoke about the challenges of keeping the company's lenders, its workers and the rest of the Ford family on board during one of the stormiest periods in the automaker's storied history. He also talked about Ford's latest challenge: keeping the company's newfound confidence from turning into complacency.

"It's something that I think about all the time," he said. "How do we not go back to where we were? How do we stay lean and hungry? And how do we continue to foster innovation? A lot of that does fall to me. I am the institutional memory around here."

While Ford CEO Alan Mulally has justifiably gotten most of the credit for the company's nascent recovery, Bill Ford has not been idle since ceding the CEO job to the former Boeing Co. executive in 2006. As executive chairman, Ford has worked behind the scenes to convince the rest of the Ford family, the automaker's board of directors, its bankers and its workers to give Mulally's plan time to gain traction.

"I felt part of my job was to help free up the management team to manage the company," Ford said. "I've had 30 years here. I know the history and I know the players. I have a relationship with all of them. And I believe I've been able to help the company by balancing all of these interests."

Bill Ford praised board members for staying the course even as they watched Chrysler and General Motors topple into bankruptcy last year.

"They were firm believers in what we were trying to do at a time when most of the external world did not believe we were going to make it through this," he said. "It required a lot of extraordinary communication between the board and the company during that period."

Not that the board accepted Mulally's plan without question. The decision to sell Ford's foreign luxury brands, for instance, was one that required "explanation," Bill Ford said.

But the real issue for most board members was something much more fundamental.

"It was, 'Do we have enough time to pull this off, or are we going to run out of time before we get overwhelmed by the external factors?' " Bill Ford recalled. "That was the big question that dominated since the middle of 2008. It was an incredibly tense period for everybody involved in the company."

Including the Ford family.

Family unity tested

The last three years have tested the family's unity as never before. But as Bill Ford is quick to point out, not a single share of the family's stock was sold.

"Everything that they were reading was doom and gloom for Ford, but we all wanted to hang on and do what we could to make sure the company made it," he said. "Had the family not shown that resolve, I'm not sure the bankers or the (United Auto Workers) would have. It was very important that the family stay together."

That they did speaks to Bill Ford's role as leader of the Ford clan.

"In a time of difficulty, whenever there is a lack of information, that void will be filled with rumor and speculation," he said. "I felt it was my job to minimize that scuttlebutt and to make sure if they had any questions, if they had any confusion or, frankly, if they had any disagreements, that I heard about them and we talked about it."

David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, said that role is one of the most important Bill Ford has played.

"Bill really is that interface between the family and the other leadership of the company," Cole said. "He has maintained the intimacy of the family with the company, and I think that has been very important."

A big issue for many family members has been the lack of dividend payments, suspended shortly after Mulally was hired.

A decade ago, stock dividends provided $130 million in revenue to the family annually. Now that the company is profitable again, Bill Ford called restoring dividends "a high priority."

"It's something we'll take a look at as we're on the road back to investment grade -- which is something that is exceptionally important for this company," he said.

Battling complacency

Still, Bill Ford believes the biggest challenge will be ensuring that Ford does not slide back into old, dysfunctional habits. He has watched the company turn victory into defeat before -- saw the stunning gains delivered by vehicles like the Ford Taurus in the 1980s and the Ford Explorer in the 1990s squandered by a culture of complacency. And he is making it his personal mission to ensure that does not happen again.

"It's a legitimate concern," Cole said. "It's hard to keep the pressure on forever. They need to keep highly focused and not deviate on the plan. It's every company's Achilles heel: Once you get to the point that the immediate danger is over, complacency starts to set in. I really think this is at the root of some of Toyota's problems."

Toyota Motor Corp., renowned for building safe, reliable, top-quality cars and trucks, is being scrutinized after recalling more than 8 million vehicles for problems linked to unintended acceleration.

Complacency has been part of Ford's problems. Bill Ford knows that better than anyone. He is determined to make fundamental changes wrought by Mulally -- putting hard facts ahead of hopes and the company's welfare ahead of personal ambition -- a permanent part of Ford's corporate culture.

"Having seen how Alan did it, how he institutionalized this process, it's going to be my mission to make sure that lives on," Ford said. "I'll be very involved in the succession process. But Alan's not going anywhere. He enjoys it. He's having fun. And he's being hugely successful."

From The Detroit News: http://detnews.com/article/20100211/AUTO01/2110424/Bill-Ford-s-challenge--Stay-lean--hungry-and-innovative#ixzz0fF54Jq4l

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