Bill Ford, Jr: Heritage, Family and Moving Forward

Founding Publisher Niall ODowd, Co-Founder and Editor Patricia Harty, Hanora Kilkenny and Consul General Noel Kilkenny present Bill Ford, Jr. with his Certificate of Irish Heritage. Photo by Margaret Purcell.

February / March 2012

The 26th annual Business 100 luncheon, which took place on December 15th at the Metropolitan Club in New York City, drew many of America’s top corporate leaders. Highlights included the presentation to Jim Quinn, president of Tiffany & Co., of the Irish Spirit Award, the keynote address by William C. Ford, Jr., executive chairman of Ford Motor Company, and a parting song by Bob Savage, president of Nanette Lepore. In his speech, Ford  paid insightful tribute to his Irish ancestors – to the challenges they faced and the risks they took, and to the inspiration that can be drawn from their journeys as we move forward, in both our daily lives and in the exciting technological milestones on the auto industry’s horizon. Enjoy his speech, edited lightly for length:

We all came here today because of a powerful force that connects us to one another, and that’s the pride we have in our Irish heritage. It also provides insight and inspiration to help us address the challenges of the future. So I’d like to say a few words about the importance of honoring our heritage, as well as the necessity of moving forward, boldly. And frankly, that’s been a guiding principle of ours at Ford. We honor our past, but we don’t dwell on it, we build on it. And knowing where we came from helps guide us towards where we’re going.

I’ve always been proud of my Irish heritage, and so this last summer I took my family back to Ireland. I particularly wanted my kids to be able to understand their Irish heritage. We went all over the country, including a stop in Ballinascarthy which is where the family farm still is. My great-great-grandfather, William Ford, came over [to the U.S.] on a famine ship in 1847, and settled on a farm in Dearborn, Mich. and that’s where in 1863, my great-grandfather Henry Ford was born.

Ireland is the only place where Ford Motor Company isn’t officially “Ford Motor Company.” It’s actually called Henry Ford and Son. The reason for that is, after Henry came over to visit Ireland in 1917 he wanted to open a Model T facility in Cork, and his Board of Directors said, “No chance. We’ve got other priorities.” So he took his own money and built the Model T plant, but he couldn’t call it “Ford Motor Company,” so he called it “Henry Ford and Son.” And so, to this day, Ford’s name in Ireland is, legally, still Henry Ford and Son.

Henry was a fascinating individual, and many of his innovations, such as the Model T, the assembly line, and the five-dollar-a-day wage, are familiar to us, because in many ways, they helped change the world. But to me, his most fundamental innovation was his belief that the function of business was to serve society. He believed that the main purpose of a corporation should be to serve customers, employees, and communities. And he fought with his partners to build a car that would enhance the lives of the average person, and not just the most affluent. He insisted on reinvesting profits into building a better, less expensive product, and then sharing those profits with his employees. In fact, he was thrown out of almost all the business groups he was part of for having introduced profit sharing.  He was told he was never welcome on Wall Street and that was fine with him. But he also said, “There is a most intimate connection between decency and good business. The only foundation of real business is service.” That wasn’t the conventional wisdom of the day, but I’m convinced it’s the reason why he was able to build a great enterprise – and put the world on wheels.

At Ford Motor Company, we continue to follow the values of our founder today. And my vision is to build great products, a strong business, and a better world. We remain a family company to this day. But we also think of our employees as extended members of our family, and that’s not just rhetoric. We have so many people in our company that are second, third, fourth, and even fifth-generation employees working there, and it really, I think, makes us a special company. We’re not a nameless, faceless company. Our name is on all our products and I believe that gives us a strong sense of commitment and responsibility. The stability and long-term perspective of our family provides a key element of the success of our company.

Five years ago, we anticipated that a downturn was about to happen – although there’s no way we could have anticipated how bad it was really going to be, and we clearly did not know the credit markets were really just going to freeze up completely. So, we went to the banks and borrowed as much as we possibly could, so that we could keep investing in new products. We mortgaged the Blue Oval, and you can imagine what our family discussion was like when I had to tell all my relatives that I’d just mortgaged everything, including the family name, to keep us going. But they were great, and they understood, and they agreed to it.

So when the worst hit in 2008, we were ready. During the recession, sales plummeted to the lowest level in twenty-five years. But we made it through, and we were able to keep investing in a complete line of fuel-efficient vehicles. And that gave us a great head start on the sales and profit growth that we’re achieving today. I kind of like to think that it’s our combative Irish heritage that got us through the tough times.

If I could just say a few words about the present day and what we’re looking at in the company. This really is not going to be a company speech, but we’re at the intersection, I believe, of three critical global issues: the economy, energy, and environment. There are concerns about employment, the availability and affordability of fuel, and the impact of CO2 on the climate. The demand for energy efficient and environmentally friendly goods is growing and will continue to grow, and smart companies have been racing to get ahead of this trend to create green products and green jobs. At Ford, we placed a huge bet back in the darkest days of 2006, 2007 and 2008, and we said, “we want to be the fuel economy leader in every single segment that we participate in, and for us that was a huge departure, because the one thing we were not known for was fuel economy. We started investing billions in research and development to power this fuel-efficient drive we were on. And so, while many of our competitors cut back during the lean years, we actually kept investing in research and development, and because of that we now have a dozen vehicles that are best in class, and four models that get at least forty miles per gallon. We just began rolling out our new Electric Focus and next year we’re going to introduce our first plug-in vehicle.

But we’re also investing in something that isn’t getting a lot of air time today, the next generation of technology, and intelligent vehicles – vehicles that can communicate with each other and with the infrastructure around them. It will make vehicles much safer. You will be able to find parking spaces without driving around; your vehicle will find it for you. It will be able to gather data from everywhere and then guide you very quickly to where you want to go. And this isn’t science fiction – you’re going to start seeing these vehicles on the road within the next five years. We have a concept vehicle right now called EVOS, which can route you around traffic jams, anticipate bad weather, and will immediately change your suspension to whatever weather is coming up. It can monitor your health, including your blood sugar and your blood pressure. It can even turn down the temperature and turn off the lights in your house as you pull away from your garage.

We’re pushing hard on this, and I think it’s going to be a really interesting and very useful technology, and will help make people’s lives better. In fact, some of the research that we do with government agencies has shown that crashes could be reduced by eighty percent with this technology. Importantly though, it’s also going to help us deal with traffic congestion, which is becoming a huge issue.

If you just do the math, today there are about a billion vehicles on the road. By mid-century, that’s going to be between two and four billion. Where are they going to go? How are they going to operate? We see it probably less here in America than when you go to Asia – where, one day last year, there was an eleven-day traffic jam in China. We do need new technology, and it’s coming. And it’s going to be very liberating.
In the process, we’re becoming a very high-tech industry. Prior to the recession, I think most people dismissed the auto industry as old-fashioned or even irrelevant. Most of America admired people who made deals, not people who made things. The auto industry was viewed by many as sort of a Rust-Belt dinosaur. But I’m happy to say I really think that’s changing. And I think if anything good came out of the downturn we just had nationally, it was an increased national recognition that industry does matter. There hasn’t been a strong economy anywhere since the Industrial Revolution that wasn’t built on the back of strong industry. So it’s my hope, and actually it’s my belief, that in this country we’re waking up to that fact and starting to value what we have, and wanting to build upon it.

We’ve been able to do this by following the principles of our founder. And it’s important to note that we haven’t idolized the past at the expense of the present. If we had, we’d still be building Model T’s, and not electric Focuses. If we over-idolize our past, we can stifle progress. It’s important, though, to still be guided by the principles that we hold dear. Our goal is to help people have a better life. To do that, we’re using the latest in technology. It’s an exciting time for our industry, for our company, and for me, personally. I cannot wait to get to work everyday to get going.

Thank you, so much, for this wonderful recognition, it’s incredibly meaningful to me. As I was talking to my children about it last night, it was really amazing. They loved their trip to Ireland. I wasn’t sure quite how much of it would stay with them, and now they want to go back next summer. This recognition means a lot to me, it means a lot to my family, and I’d like you to – as we think about it – remember your heritage with pride, and be mindful of all the experiences of our forbearers. And use those as we guide our companies, as we go into the future.


One Response to “Bill Ford, Jr: Heritage, Family and Moving Forward”

  1. Board says:

    What great American storyall Irish Americans can be proud of.

    Well done Irish America.
    You continue to remind us and invigorate us all.

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