Auto exec William Ford is full of surprises


September 04, 2005|By JASON STEIN

When you meet the man, he's smaller than you think he's going to be.

After all, you imagine a seven-foot-tall person running the world's third-largest car company, someone who could crunch ligaments in a single handshake.

But not Bill Ford, Billy, as his closest friends and dearest relatives call him.

He's not tall: perhaps 5-foot-8.

He's not domineering, pretentious, outlandish or particularly rakish.

But then William Clay Ford Jr., the great-grandson of Henry Ford, inventor of the assembly line and the Model T and the purest symbol of America's industrial revolution, isn't a lot of things you would expect out of someone who grew up in the shadow of such rich history and who carries the title of Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer.

He's just Bill Ford.

He loves playing hockey. He has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Princeton University and a Master of Science degree in management from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (yes, M.I.T.).


He enjoys playing folk guitar music. He was a vegetarian for nearly a decade, embraced acupuncture, yoga as well as Zen, Tibetan and Vipassaba Buddhism. In his office, he once hung a photo of himself slicing one bare hand through a stack of six cement patio bricks.

He's not seven feet tall, but he's also not your average CEO. Of course, Ford isn't the average American company.

In the nearly five years since he took over in his role as Chairman and CEO of Ford Motor Company, Bill Ford has had to balance many difficult times at the automaker.

Ford's share of the automotive market, like General Motors, continues to come under heavy pressure from the Japanese, Korean and European car companies.

And, through all of it, he has played the role of a very un-CEO kind of CEO.

When an explosion on Feb. 1, 1999 at a Ford plant in suburban Detroit, Mich., killed several employees, Bill Ford raced to the scene from his office in nearby Dearborn. He rejected the advice of his advisors and one, in particular, who claimed, "Generals don't go out to the front lines."

Ford's response? "Then bust me down to private."

He has been equally emphatic in the wake of financial hard times at the automaker, foregoing his salary until the numbers look better and announcing the contribution of his performance-based stock bonuses to scholarship funds benefiting employees and charity.

Born in Detroit on May 3, 1957, Bill Ford has always been a little bit different. He has done the typical, working his way through his family company attempting to make a mark at every stop along the way.

After joining the automaker in 1979, at 22, he held 17 different positions, beginning in the finance department, a grooming ground for future executives. He spent several years as a mid-rank executive in product development and briefly headed the Climate Control Division as well as the heavy-truck center. Ford left his executive position there to become chairman of the finance committee, a non-executive corporate governance position, for several years before becoming chairman in 1999, stepping in as a values guy. And it has been that way ever since.

"I bleed Ford blue," he told a cheering crowd of supporters after he was named chairman.

But he has done the unusual, too. At times there has been some ambivalence.

He has refused to read biographies of his great-grandfather. He quit the company for a time in 1995. And he recently moved from the family home in Detroit to live in suburban Ann Arbor, Mich.

"When I saw what was happening to our company, I thought I could help us," he once told the Detroit News.

He is trying to do that by committing to make Ford a more environmentally friendly company, publicly blaming auto emissions for greenhouse gases that are causing a climate change.

A recent $2 billion refurbishment of the massive Rouge River factory in Dearborn even put a living, breathing and growing ecosystem on the expansive rooftop.

He wants the Ford company to become more involved with hybrid gas-electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel-cell technology, recyclable cars and compostable parts.

He's knows quality is king and that excuses won't work.

That's why he will continue to take a hands-on approach, working every day from the top of Ford's World Headquarters in Dearborn, hatching new plans, constructing new ideas and giving a fresh approach to one of America's oldest industrial legacies.

One unique approach, one Zen moment at a time.

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at :

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