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Toyota turmoil can keep Ford, others humble

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Toyota turmoil can keep Ford, others humble



Toyota's stunning fall from the pedestal of perceived perfection was the best thing that could have happened to Ford Motor this year, I thought Tuesday after listening to Bill Ford, executive chairman of the company his great-grandpa founded, speak at a Livonia Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

Not because Toyota car owners, rattled by recent recalls, will suddenly flock en masse to Ford showrooms, although some may now give the Blue Oval a try.

No, the best thing for Ford Motor about Toyota's trouble is that it is a DANGER sign writ large for any automaker tempted to believe its own good press. Don't even think of getting smug or cocky when things go well for a few months.

Prosperity can be a problem

This message is especially timely for Ford, which: (a) survived the auto industry shakeout of 2008 without a federal rescue; (b) opened the auto show season by sweeping the 2010 North American car and truck of the year awards, and © then posted a $2.7-billion profit for 2009.

In Dearborn, you could almost feel the victory parade anticipation.

Bill Ford knows this can be a big problem -- and said so Tuesday: "The biggest issue facing us at Ford is self-satisfaction and complacency. Things have been going well for us for the last year. But dial it back 18 months, and you get a very different picture.

"We survived the abyss by the skin of our teeth," he added. "Now things have started to go well, but it's very early days. What worries me the most is that our company has always done well in times of adversity, but it's handling prosperity where we get into trouble."

That's why the timing of Toyota's trouble is good for Ford.

If the world's largest and most respected automaker can get rocked so hard, so fast, the same thing -- or worse -- can happen to any competitor.

A helpful crisis

Bill Ford knows this because he has seen Ford Motor slip into periods of overconfidence and entitlement time and again.

And you can be sure the lesson of Toyota's fall to Earth is not lost on Alan Mulally, Ford's president and CEO. Remember, before being recruited from Boeing to Ford in 2006, Mulally's personal ride was a Lexus, because, at the time, he considered Toyota's luxury brand the world's best.

When Bill Ford told journalists Tuesday that he takes no joy in Toyota's crisis over safety recalls, he sounded sincere.

"I wouldn't wish that on anybody. We've had our own challenges. We've been through our own tough times," Ford said

And given the memory of his own tumultuous time in a similar boat with the controversy over Firestone tires failing on Ford Explorers back in 2001, that makes some sense.

But back in his office, where the world is not watching or listening, I can imagine Ford quietly giving thanks that Toyota's crisis may help keep the Ford Motor family humble and focused.



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