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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Jan/Feb 2000 : What's in a Name?

What's in a Name?

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The First Ford Environmentalist

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Bill Ford

Everything if you’re William Clay Ford, Jr. The 42-year-old chairman of the automaker that bears his family name has been an outspoken and energetic advocate of environmental initiatives—a role he says originates with the company’s founder. And one he’s anxious to continue in an effort to change the way the company and ultimately the automotive industry acts in the 21st century.

Two days after Ford Motor Co. announced its withdrawal from the Global Climate Coalition, a decision that surprised many involved in the global environmental arena, William Clay Ford, Jr. sat down with editors of Green@Work magazine to discuss that decision as well as other initiatives being undertaken to move the company forward on a variety of environmental fronts. He talked not only about his aspirations for the company as chairman and the need to balance obligations to shareholders, consumers and society at large, but also his own personal ambitions in driving change and having a positive impact on the world.

Tell us about your first year as chairman of Ford Motor Co.

On the one hand it really wasn’t a tremendous surprise because I feel like I have been preparing for it my entire life. Having been around first my uncle and then all the subsequent chairmen of Ford, I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into. Having said that, nothing ever goes as planned. It was a series of unique events, some wonderful and some horrible. But the combination—you put it all together, and I think it’s been a tremendous first year.

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned?

Probably not what you would think. One of the lessons I’ve learned is to keep control of my own calendar because I found out that everyone wants to grab my time. I found that I was quickly doing everything everyone else wanted me to do, and not doing what I thought I should be doing. I also learned that you’ve got to be flexible. It doesn’t matter what goals you set at the beginning of the year, events come upon you and you have to be willing to act quickly. A perfect example of that is Volvo.

There were a number of things that came up this year that weren’t expected. We had a tragedy at the Rouge plant. That was something that took a lot of time and emotional energy to deal with. And that’s certainly nothing that you can plan for and something I hope we never go through again.

How did you get interested in sustainability?

I’ve always had an environmental interest. Where that stems from, I don’t know. There was no defining event. I loved the outdoors as a child. It’s the same today; I am much happier outdoors than inside. And then I started to notice things. During my pre-teen years, places I thought were wonderful now had strip malls on them. And that bothered me. In high school, I would volunteer for clean up projects and clean water projects; in college I started to read Edward Abbey and a lot of the other thinkers of the day, like Rachel Carson. When I got out of college, I became affiliated with several environmental groups and it just has evolved ever since.

The one thing that was always with me was this paradox: how can I work for an industrial company yet have the environment feelings that I have? It created a lot of conflict for me and within me. It was something that my wife and I talked about a lot in my 10 to 15 years at Ford. And it was something that led me at various times to almost leave the company to go pursue environmental interests. But I never did because I always felt, in the end, I could have more of an impact if I stayed here. I’m glad I made that decision.

What were the biggest challenges you faced in bringing an environmental platform to your position?

It really started before I became chairman. When I went on the board back in 1988, I was immediately told by members of our top management that I had to quit associating with environmental groups—they were all crazy and it would reflect badly on Ford Motor Co. And I told them I had no intention of doing that. Somebody had to build bridges between the two camps and I thought that I would be well positioned to do that.

And then a couple of tragedies happened. You had the Bhopol tragedy and then the Exxon Valdez tragedy. And the combination of the two, particularly the Exxon one, had people here scurrying to find me saying, “Hey, you know some of these people. Can you help us to start a dialogue?” But it was a long, tough struggle at Ford to change the mindset. And I suppose you never declare victory. But I can tell you we’ve moved a long way from where we were.

It’s safe to say, for the most part, that our attitude about the environment was it was something that was regulated, we had to beat those regulations and we hoped that the whole issue would go away. That’s really how I think we treated the whole notion of the environment for many, many years.

But the interesting thing is, unlike most things in companies our size which are very much top down, there was a real ground swell of support within the ranks for environmental action and environmental leadership. Once people started hearing about it, and hearing that at least some people were thinking this way, I was swamped with letters and e-mails saying, “How can I help? We’ve got to get this going.” That’s very unusual. Most actions start at the top and are sort of smashed through an organization.

How do you change the corporate culture of a company the size of Ford?

It’s interesting, in this one area I think it happened fast. I think it happened because people were ready for it to happen. I think the real layer of clay here at the company was the upper management. But the folks in the ranks very much wanted this to happen. We’ve always taken a lead in philanthropy and social issues and helping out in communities, so it was odd that we had this stance on the environment because it was very different from how Ford normally acted. We were very proactive on education, we built hospitals and schools all around the world and so I think the people at Ford were waiting for this and as soon as the green light came on, they just jumped on it. So I really think it was about changing the attitude of upper management, not the culture of the entire company.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing you right now on the environmental forefront?

The environment touches everything we do. It’s our product itself—the vehicle. It’s the way we make the product. How we dispose of the product. So basically everything this company does touches the environment. And within each one of those are a whole myriad of environmental issues. So it’s hard to pinpoint one biggest issue. The biggest issue is we have to get our arms around all of that and play a leadership role.

Let’s go back to the very beginning. Cars before the Model T were for the elite. And they were kind of a novelty item. Then the Model T changed that and they became available to everyone. They became sources of transportation, they became work vehicles. After WWII, people started love affairs with cars and cars became part of their lives. They became an expression of themselves. Whether it was the ‘50s with the fins or the ‘60s with the muscle cars, people fell in love with cars. People would remember their first cars like they would remember their first girlfriends. Often the timing coincided.

And then you had the oil shock in the ‘70s and the subsequent economic tough times of the early ‘80s and the vehicles we started making to respond to those weren’t very fun. They were four cylinders, not very high quality kind of vehicles. And it disappointed people. It disappointed us to make those vehicles. And that was probably the low point. But then we started to make better cars and trucks that people started to like more. But the social liability aspect started to creep in like it never had before, principally in the form of pollution and congestion. Congestion not so much in this country, but certainly in Europe and parts of Asia. So all of the people were conflicted. They loved their cars but hated everybody else’s.

We want to make it possible now for people to not only love their cars but to love everyone else’s as well. And to make the car ownership experience not a conflicted one, to have people feel good about it. The way to do that is to clean them up. To help solve the congestion issue. Both of which we’re working on, both of which are long-term projects. And we certainly can’t sit here and claim victory yet at all. But we’re moving the needle and we’re marching fast.

And I like what we’ve done so far. All of our plants around the world are ISO 14001, which is a horrible title but which is, nonetheless, a very real standard. It’s been a great business equation for us to do that. We are now requiring our suppliers to meet that standard. All our trucks in the U.S. are low emission vehicles—again that was voluntary. We just announced that we’re going to meet Stage Four emission levels in Europe, which is sort of equivalent to our LEV status, years ahead of schedule. We’re investing heavily in fuel cells and we want to be the first on the road with a fuel cell vehicle. We’re pushing hard, but on a lot of fronts.

Is one particular thing your baby?

No, and it can’t be. Nothing can be my baby. It has to be something that’s embraced by the entire company. Because as soon as it is seen as Bill Ford’s pet project, people lose ownership of it, people think, “OK, we just have to do this to make Bill happy and then we’ll get on with it.” But I am involved in every bit of it because I wear another hat as chairman of our Environmental and Public Policy committee of the board of directors so all these issues come to that committee for review.

Do you get a lot of interest and inquiries from other CEOs?

There are some who seek me out and others I think who vilify me. Some think this is all craziness. And it does run the gamut. I have spent a lot of time talking to John Browne at British Petroleum because certainly he was and is seen as a standard bearer for this cause and really broke with his industry. I had John speak to our management group about two weeks ago by PicTel for two hours about why he made the decisions he made, would he do it again, what has he learned, what have been the benefits, what have been the drawbacks. And he was terrific. He and I have spent a fair amount of time talking. But there are many others, too. And a lot of others who are interested in getting going but don’t just know quite how.

There are a lot of people doing good things. When I started asking the NGOs about four or five years ago, “Who’s doing good things in business?” Certainly you heard names like Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s, but I also heard names like Dow and DuPont. Dow and DuPont? Dow—I remember when Greenpeace was stuffing their discharge pipes up in Midland back 20 years ago. And yet they had really turned it around. I thought, “Wow, if they can do it, we can too.”

It’s interesting, though. You have to be consistent. We just pulled out of the Global Climate Coalition because here we were driving all this change in terms of our business and yet we were part of this group that wasn’t consistent with that. It was not a popular move in a lot of circles and I have taken a lot of heat for it. But in the end it’s very much consistent with our philosophy and where we are headed as a company.

You can’t do something like this half way or selectively or in pieces because people, rightly, will look at all of your actions and ask, “Do they all fit together?” And we’ve got some holes. We know it. Our fuel economy of our vehicles isn’t good enough. We’re working hard to improve those. The market is pulling the company into bigger and bigger sport utilities. I’ve had people say to me, “Why do you make those vehicles? If you’re an environmentalist, how can you in good conscience put those on the road?” My response to that is simply this: We can’t dictate customer choice because if we don’t provide that vehicle, somebody else is going to. But what I can promise is that we will do it more responsibly than the next person.

For instance, the Excursion. The Sierra Club affectionately calls it the Ford Valdez. They ask, “How can you do that?” Well, if we didn’t make the Excursion, the customer would go buy its competitor. Ours is 45 percent cleaner, we’ve made ours a low emission vehicle. Ours has the highest recycled content in the industry. It’s built for recycleability. We built the cleanest paint shop in the industry to paint the Excursion. So, at the end of the day, if the customer wants a vehicle like that, it’s more responsible to buy it from us.

Put another way, if we made all 80 mile-per-gallon small cars, but they sat unsold on a dealer lot, we would go out of business and we wouldn’t be helping the environment. So we can’t be in the business of dictating customer choice, but what we can do is to do it in a responsible manner. And that’s what we really have to do.

I look at it this way: we have three obligations. One is to our shareholders to give them the best possible return that we can. The other is to consumers to give them exactly what they want. But the third is to society to do that in a way that is as responsible as possible. And I think if we follow those principles we’ll be fine as a company.

So many times, doing the right thing is the right thing to do for the bottom line. I mentioned ISO 14001. The net effect is that we’re saving hundreds of millions of dollars. We’re saving it by using literally billions of gallons of water less then we were before, we’re paying a fraction of what we were to have toxins removed from our plants. We are recycling more stuff. Our electricity usage is way down. And all that is real savings that flows right to the bottom line.

What are your expectations for fuel cells?

I can’t sit here today and tell you with great certainty that the internal combustion engine in the next 10 years is going to be replaced with fuel cells. What I can tell you is that it is more viable today than if we’d been having this discussion three years ago. And that’s how fast technology is changing.

I am very excited by the prospect of fuel cells. Number one, we know they work. We’re not inventing anything. They’ve powered space stations. We’ve got them in buses now. The real issue for fuel cells is, number one, can we shrink them enough? Number two, can we manufacture them in high volume and make them reliable? And number three, do they come down the cost curve? Obviously, if you get the volume up the cost will come down.

And then the other issue is the issue of infrastructure. How are we going to power these things? Are we going to have direct hydrogen on every corner? Maybe. We’ve built a hydrogen fueling station here at Ford to test how. We have a liquid station and a gaseous station to see which is easier to handle and which is easier to deal with. Or do you have an on-board converter so that maybe you load in methanol, even gasoline, and have a chemical conversion take place so that the hydrogen is separated. But that’s not a totally clean process, but it may be in the short-term a more viable one.

At the end of the day, am I encouraged by fuel cells? Yes I am. There’s nothing else that I see out there that gives you the big bang like a fuel cell does in terms of impact to the environment. We’ve got methanol, ethanol, compressed natural gas, electric—all of those have some benefit to the environment but there are often tradeoffs, too. The fuel cell is kind of the silver bullet, leaving solar aside, which is way further out. So in the medium-term, I think fuel cells are the most exciting thing out there because it really does promise a tremendous benefit to the environment.

Does the economic stability of the ‘90s afford a platform for positive environmental initiatives?

Absolutely. That and the pace of technology change. It is amazing how fast things change. Some of the Internet stuff that we’re doing now we weren’t even thinking about six months ago. And that’s why it’s interesting. When I go to Washington and talk with the administration or members of Congress about regulations, they say to me, “Well of course you’re against regulations because you’re in the auto industry.” And I say, “But I come at it a little bit differently. I think it’s crazy for Washington to prescribe solutions today for the next 10 to 15 years, because technology is changing so fast that whatever is prescribed today will probably be obsolete in six months.”

What they should do, I believe, is to give us incentive. Say, “Here are the targets. Now you figure out how to go get them.” And it will be a technology-led solution that will be the right solution for the customer and the right solution for us. Technology is changing everything. It’s changing the way we’re touching the customer, it’s changing the way we’re potentially powering our vehicles.

So it’s really a two-prong answer. Yes, there’s a lot of money around now. And the other is that the pace of technology will change it dramatically. Certainly the former affects the latter.

What qualities will leaders in the 21st century need to possess?

I would be the last to try to tell you what a good leader is. What I have seen, though, and I will bring it back to my other life in football, when you talk about the great coaches of all time, there are almost no similarities between them. So I think leadership is a very personal thing and I think it’s very hard to define. I played a game with a friend the other day where we named who we thought were the top 10 coaches of all time. And then we tried to find what was similar. Very tough to find. Their styles are different. Some are disciplinarians. Some aren’t. Some are extremely well organized. Some aren’t. It was a very interesting exercise to go through because there is no formula there.

I think a lot of leadership is timing, too. Do you have a platform to be a leader? Is the world ready for what you have to say? Whoever is running a major corporation needs to be sensitive to the needs of society.

If you go back to the ‘30s with FDR and WWII and the presidents right after that, people went to governments to solve problems. There was a great trust in government. I think there is a level of cynicism now toward government; most people just want government to stay out of things and stay out of their lives. If that’s true and if it’s also true that corporations control a tremendous amount of intellectual and financial capital, then it only makes sense I think for corporations to step in. And it’s not that people aren’t mistrustful of corporations because they are, too. But I also think that with all the capital that corporations have and the fact that geographic borders are breaking down, as we sit here—

particularly by the Internet—businesses can reach out anywhere now. Because we can do that and because we have this tremendous human and intellectual capital we have a responsibility to use it in a very responsible manner.

Where do the NGOs fit?

I think business has to stop looking as NGOs as adversaries and start embracing them as partners. The whole notion of reaching out to the NGOs and embracing them is something we—Ford—has to do and the world has to do because they’re not always going to tell us what we want to hear. But they’re going to tell us what we need to hear.

Just having a dialogue has broken down a lot of barriers. I sit down with them and say, “Look, here’s where we are. Here’s where you would like us to be. Now you help me figure out how we get from here to there.” And we’re not always going to agree. But it’s really healthy to do that. You’re missing a real opportunity if you don’t have dialogue with them and embrace them as partners, recognizing that there are going to be times when you’re just not going to agree.

What is Bill Ford’s legacy at Ford?

If I can look back and feel like I have touched a lot of lives around the world in a positive manner, that will make me feel good. Inherent in that statement are a lot of things: that Ford has been successful, that we’ve been successful. But, at the end of the day, if I can look back and say that during my tenure Ford had a very positive impact on the world, then I’ll feel great. And again I think it’s not just a matter of my personal desire, it’s also a matter of timing. We have real issues facing the world and we may not have a lot of time to solve those issues.

I would rather err on the side of aggressiveness. Even if a lot of the dire predictions don’t come true, and I hope they don’t, what we will have accomplished will have been good for the world anyway.

And the other thing is, it’s great for you and your employees. If people think you stand for something rather than against something, the psychology of that is very powerful. I think it’s motivating to our employees when they see Ford involved in the community, not just in environmental issues, but in any issue. Getting out, doing positive things, lending a hand. And playing a leadership role. They feel better about the company they work for. They feel energized by it. They’re proud to tell their children they work for Ford. And that pays off in a lot of ways you can’t measure.

So it’s the right thing to do, not only for society, but it’s the right thing to do for our own company.

What are your expectations for your tenure as chairman of Ford Motor Co.?

I’ll never leave Ford. I may not be chairman, who knows what I’ll be. But the title was never important. I am never going to leave Ford. I may go out and do something completely different, but I will always be part of Ford Motor Co. Just like I always felt like I was a part of it from the day I was born.
And that’s the other thing. It’s my name. It’s my family name here. I want my children and my grandchildren to be proud of that. I don’t want them ever to be in a position where they have to apologize to somebody for it. And I think we have an opportunity to not let that happen.

Did you ever have to apologize for your name?

No, but I think that the way society was going and the way industry was going, in another 20 years perhaps that would have been the case.

What’s the most fun?

I enjoy people. I don’t enjoy sitting behind a desk. I get up every morning impatient with the possibilities. I am not even remotely interested in being a caretaker in this position. If I can’t fundamentally change Ford Motor Co. and ultimately the way industry acts in society, then forget it. Then I will have failed.

That sounds like such a daunting prospect and yet I figure I’ve got some time and I certainly have some energy. And I’ve got a lot of good people to work with. And people generally would like to see that happen anyway. It’s just a matter of getting on with it. And that gets me up every morning. The whole idea of really accomplishing this is very, very exciting. I feel I have been given a tremendous opportunity and if I don’t make the most of it I will have really blown it.

People say to me, “Well, don’t you love cars?” Yes, I do. I think cars are cool. I like old cars, I like new cars. I like fast cars. But what turns me on is affecting society and having a positive impact on the world. And that’s a much broader direction.


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