When Jim Hackett announced his retirement as CEO for Ford after a tough three years of restructuring, the first voice on a conference call with the media was that of Bill Ford.
“I thank him for his brave leadership and his friendship,” Ford said of Hackett.
The chairman of the automaker’s board of directors served as CEO from 2001 to 2006, before stepping down to let former Boeing exec Alan Mulally steer Ford through the Great Recession. But 14 years and three CEOs later, Henry Ford’s great-grandson commands a leading role in what is still very much a family business.
On the call, Bill Ford praised Hackett, whom the board elevated to CEO in 2017, after Mulally’s successor, Mark Fields, failed to deliver on profit forecasts to Wall Street. But the 117-year-old company’s stock continued to slide under Hackett, dropping 40% since 2017.
That puts Bill Ford in a tricky spot. Thanks to a special class of “super” shares, Henry Ford’s descendants control 40% of the company — and they need their stake to perform well.
Ford suspended its dividend earlier this year, as the coronavirus pandemic ravaged its US and European operations. The company has a fortress balance sheet with $39 in total liquidity, but has borrowed billions to brace for the COVID-19 shutdown. CFO Tim Stone said much of those credit lines would be repaid and that Ford expects to return to profitability in the third quarter. But the carmaker’s market performance had been disappointing, even before the pandemic struck, despite a run of positive bottom-line years since the 2009 downturn.
It hasn’t been lost on Bill Ford, either, that Tesla’s $266 billion market cap is ten times higher than Ford’s, despite selling roughly 250,000 cars in 2019, compared to Ford’s 5.4 million.
Bill Ford wants a different future for his family’s 117-year-old business
Bill Ford has long been a forward-thinking leader, articulating a future for his family’s company that stresses environmental stewardship and high-tech, urban-focused, connected mobility over simply building more F-150 pickup trucks. But the F-150s, with their juicy profit margins and history as America’s best-selling vehicle, literally pay the bills. Ford’s North American business makes up for struggles in Europe and South America, as well as a late start in China relative to competitors such as VW and GM.
When Hackett, now 65, became CEO, the view in the industry was that his primary mission was to articulate Bull Ford’s vision, which made sense as he had been overseeing Ford’s “smart mobility” initiatives after a stint on the board. Two other executives, Joe Hinrichs and Farley, would manage the actual car business.
But Bill Ford remained very much in the picture, more so than he had been when Mulally was in charge, and even later when Fields became CEO. He made it clear on Tuesday that in Farley, Ford had committed to an industry veteran after taking a chance on an offbeat outsider who had run furniture maker Steelcase and had gotten involved with Silicon Valley through investments in influential California design firm IDEO.
“My closest ally in this was Bill Ford,” Hackett told Business Insider in an interview several weeks ago. “I’ve gotten to test ideas with him constantly. He and I would talk three or four times a day. The other day, he said, ‘It’s a better company since you’ve been here.’ You could have knocked me over with a feather.”
Farley, who came to Ford from Toyota in 2007, was being tracked for the CEO job at least since the beginning of the year, when Hinrichs abruptly left the carmaker, clarifying the succession plan. Farley is a noted gearhead who likes to work on his own cars and frequents race tracks, but he’s also known as a marketing maven.
And with Ford in the middle of rolling out critical products including a new F-150, the revived Bronco SUV, and a marquee electric vehicle in the new Mustang Mach-E, the chairman’s view could be that the time for talking up the future is over — and that the company needs to core business to do its job.
That doesn’t mean Ford can forget about the transformation of the auto industry that’s now underway. But it could mean that in the next year or two, we’ll be hearing a lot more about that from the man whose name is still on the building.
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