Excuse Me, Mr. Ford

Article excerpt

Byline: Keith Naughton

How to tell the man whose name is on the building that you're overhauling the family firm he once ran

As Ford Motor Co.'s sales continued to drop this summer, the company's new CEO, Alan Mulally, made a visit to the wood-paneled corner office of his boss, chairman Bill Ford Jr. Mulally, the former Boeing exec who is trying to turn Ford around, had a bold proposal: consider selling Ford's Volvo division. "No," Bill Ford responded. Volvo, Ford said, was one of the few profitable pieces of the car wreck that Ford Motor has become. "It's still a great brand with great values." Mulally countered that if Ford can't jump-start sales of the cars with your name on them, "none of the rest of this is going to matter." "I looked at him," Ford tells NEWSWEEK, "and I thought, 'You know, that's right'."

The relationship between the Ford family scion and his new chief is one of the oddest marriages in corporate America today. Normally, when an executive like Bill Ford presides over historic losses, he is shown the door. But, of course, Bill Ford is the great-grandson of Henry Ford. And the Fords have remained incredibly cohesive in their control of the 104-year-old automaker: a family member has served as chairman or CEO of Ford for all but 20 years of that history. Yet tradition goes only so far when you're losing money. During Ford's five years as CEO, drivers snubbed the company's guzzlers as gas prices soared. Last year Ford racked up $12.7 billion in losses.

So one year ago Bill Ford fired himself as CEO and brought in Mulally, who made his name reviving Boeing's commercial-airline business after 9/11. Staying on as executive chairman, Ford still goes to work every day in an office 15 steps away from his successor. But the man who was once the star of the company's TV commercials has kept such a low profile that one wag asked a company exec, "Is Bill Ford in witness protection?" Ford says he didn't want any confusion about who is in charge now. "There's no time for any kind of political garbage," he says.

The arrangement leaves Mulally in the awkward position of fixing the mistakes of his predecessor -- while still working for him. "It's very unusual that the ex-CEO hangs around," Ford acknowledged in a joint interview with Mulally, the first they've given since the change. Mulally, 62, says he insisted Ford, 50, remain chairman because he values the enduring family commitment. "It's my private equity," Mulally jokes.

But Mulally was nervous about criticizing the man whose name is on the building (and his paycheck). To give Mulally permission to speak freely, Bill Ford admitted to failures on his watch. …