Dissent nearly tore Ford family apart
BY BRYCE G. HOFFMAN
MARCH 14, 2012
By spring 2007, CEO Alan Mulally's turnaround plan for Ford Motor Co. was gaining traction. But some Ford family members worried the automaker was beyond saving. Though Ford is publicly traded, the family controls it through exclusive ownership of super-voting Class B shares.
In April, the family convened at Greenfield Village. A Wall Street firm, Perella Weinberg Partners, offered its deal-making service. Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. left the room to allow the others to decide what to do.
At some point in the discussion, someone asked what the family's Class B shares would really be worth if they were sold on the open market, suggesting it might be time for the Fords to cut their losses and get out while they still could. For many in the room, this was crossing a line.
Elena Ford was one of them.
The daughter of Charlotte Ford and Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos, she was born Elena Anne Ford-Niarchos in 1966. She dropped the Niarchos and eschewed the glamorous New York society life of her mother and siblings for the smoky factories and sharp-elbowed corporate politics of Dearborn. With her plain appearance and blunt manner, she fit right in. Though the fortune she inherited from her father made her wealthy even by Ford standards, Elena was no pampered debutante. A self-described "car freak," she asked for a Mustang for her sixteenth birthday. Now in her forties, she still drove one — often to lunch at Miller's Bar, a favorite Ford hangout a few miles down Michigan Avenue from World Headquarters that was famous for its greasy burgers. After joining the automaker in 1995, she began a grand tour of the company typical of the Fords who decided to work there — starting as a communications coordinator for Ford's truck division and making a rapid ascent up the corporate ladder, including brief stints as a finance specialist in product development, brand strategy leader in global marketing, director of business strategy for Ford's international automotive group and director of product marketing for the Lincoln Mercury division. Now she was director of North American product marketing, planning, and strategy.
Unlike some of the other Fords who had taken jobs at the company, Elena had a reputation for being a tireless worker. She was eager to prove herself, but she was also passionate about the company. It was the first place she ever felt she really belonged, and she took immense pride in the respect its employees had for the Ford family. During her time in Dearborn, Elena had developed a respect for her coworkers, too, as well as a modicum of disdain for her relatives who chose to live off their inheritances and did nothing to contribute to the success of their company.
Elena's strong emotions for Ford and its employees were evident as she rose to address her aunts, uncles, and cousins at the family meeting.
"I work inside this company, and I believe in it," she began with characteristic directness. "The people who don't work here have to trust the people who do work here."
Part of Elena's responsibilities included powertrain and product planning. That meant she was more aware than most at Ford of the new products already under development, along with a new generation of engines that promised to get more power out of less gas. These were game-changers, she said, and Ford was committed to bringing them to market even if it had to make deeper cuts to pay for them. In the past, the company had eaten its seed corn. But not this time. Mulally was committed to that.
"It's going to be tough, and it's going to be hard, but we are going to get through it," she insisted. "We have the expertise. We have the product."
Elena choked up when she turned to the family's obligation to the company's employees.
"You've got to believe in this company, because the people who work here are so dedicated and so intensely proud that they will do everything in their power to make it work," she said, adding that she had already lost many friends to the layoffs and seen others quit because they had given up hope before Mulally was hired. "If you don't live it every day, it's hard to understand. It's not about whether Ford can be saved or not. We have no choice!"
As for the idea of selling out, Elena wanted no part of it. She understood why some of her relations might be uneasy about the challenges still facing Ford. She knew that many did not work for a living and had much of their wealth tied up in a company that had stopped paying dividends and offered little prospect of resuming those payments anytime soon.
"I know times are tough, but this company is going to succeed. I'm going to continue to support it, and I think you should, too. If you don't, that's fine — but I don't think you're making the right choice," she said, reminding them that she and others in the room were more than willing to purchase shares from any family member who needed cash or who no longer had the stomach for it. "I believe in the company, and I'm going to support the company."
By the time she sat back down, at least a few in the room were dabbing their eyes. Several of Elena's relatives came up afterward and thanked her, including her cousin Bill, who had been told of her impassioned plea.
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