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Bill Ford’s Third Act: Fighting for Automaker’s Future, His Own Legacy

Bill Koenig
By Bill Koenig Senior Editor, SME Media

COMMENTARY

Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford Motor Co., is now in Act III in his career at the automaker. The outcome will determine Ford Motor’s future and his legacy.

Act I was a climb to the top. It helps having your name on the headquarters. The Ford family has 40% voting power through a special class of stock. Still, he also had competition from an older cousin, Edsel Ford II. Yet it was Bill Ford who made it to the top.

In Act II, he took command. He deposed a non-family CEO (Jacques Nasser) in the process. But Bill Ford ultimately stumbled. In 2006, he had to bring in another non-family CEO, Alan Mulally.

Mulally, a former Boeing Co. executive, got the lion’s share of the credit when the automaker made a comeback by shedding brands and concentrating on its main Ford brand.

With Act III, Bill Ford has not returned to the CEO chair. But in May he helped depose Mulally’s successor, Mark Fields. In his place is Jim Hackett, a former Steelcase executive who oversaw big changes at the office furniture maker.

New Complications

Since Mulally’s retirement in 2014, things have gotten more complicated for Ford (Dearborn, MI). Now the focus is on self-driving cars and projected increased output of electric and hybrid vehicles.

Technology companies such as Google and Apple are looking to participate in self-driving vehicles. That raises the possibility they will disrupt automotive the way retail (Amazon) and newspapers (Google taking away advertising) were disrupted by tech companies.

Bill Ford, now 60, made the case this week to The Wall Street Journal that the automaker needs to move faster and he’ll be in the thick of it.

“We’ve got to place bets,” Bill Ford told the Journal. “We’ve got to have a point of view about the future.”

The chairman’s prominence in setting the future course is evident in various ways. On one section of Ford’s media website, Bill Ford’s picture and job title is above that of Hackett, the new CEO.

The question is whether Bill Ford’s third act will be more successful than his second.

Bill-Ford-300x225.png
Executive Chairman Bill Ford of Ford Motor Co.

Bill Ford’s tenure as CEO (2001-2006) was an up-and-down affair. It began and ended with the company incurring losses and cutting jobs. Bill Ford was described in news reports as a reluctant CEO because of his own words.

“I feel like things are coming at me from every possible angle and I’m not sure I’m doing a good-enough job,” he told Newsweek in 2003.

There was other uncertainty. The stock of different executives, vying to be Bill Ford’s No. 2 man, gyrated during the period. Yet the struggles continued.

Eventually, Bill Ford handed off the CEO post to Mulally, who had been running Boeing’s commercial aircraft business. A comeback occurred and Ford’s famously volatile executive culture seemed to settle down.

That was then. Things are still coming at Bill Ford at every possible angle, including some that weren’t on the horizon in 2003. How he performs this time around may determine how he is ultimately judged.

Bill Koenig, a senior editor of Manufacturing Engineering, covered Ford from 2001 through 2008 for Bloomberg News.

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