Ford passes torch to a new generation of family leaders

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Jordyn Grzelewski and Daniel Howes, The Detroit News
·8 min read
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Mar. 13—DEARBORN — Elevating the fifth generation of Ford family members to the Ford Motor Co. board room signals continuing commitment to family oversight of the 118-year-old automaker pushing to navigate the most tumultuous time in the industry since Henry Ford's moving assembly line.

The automaker on Friday confirmed the upcoming departures of two board members, Edsel Ford II — a great-grandson of Henry Ford who has served on the board for 33 years — and retired Eli Lilly CEO John Lechleiter.

The moves represent the beginnings of a generational shift in Ford family involvement atop the Blue Oval, an icon of American industry that has known soaring triumph and endured existential adversity over more than a century. Alexandra Ford English and Henry Ford III — great-great-grandchildren of Henry Ford and the children, respectively, of Executive Chairman Bill Ford and Edsel Ford II — have been nominated to fill the two board seats in advance of a shareholder vote set for May 13.

"What we're seeing is an unprecedented level of changes occurring, with autonomy, mobility, electrification — and the family wants to preserve its heritage of participation and being a significant factor in the auto industry," said David Cole, chair emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.

Since the automaker's founding in 1903, Ford family members have been deeply involved in the company — and often lightning rods for criticism. Historically, a handful of family members have served in senior leadership roles and on the board of directors. And family members carry outsize influence because only they can hold the Class B shares that give them effective voting control of the company.

Besides founder Henry Ford, his son, Edsel B. Ford served as president for nearly 25 years before his death during World War II. Edsel's eldest son, Henry Ford II, known as "Hank the Deuce," led the company for decades beginning in the 1940s until his death in 1987. The youngest son of Edsel, Bill Ford Sr., also played a longtime role in the boardroom as a director for nearly 60 years.

More recently, Bill's son, Bill Ford Jr., and Edsel Ford II, son of the Deuce, held a series of executive jobs inside the company before and after joining the board in 1988 amid tension with then-CEO Donald Petersen. Bill Ford Jr., now executive chairman, served as CEO from 2001 to 2006.

Today, four Ford family members work in various roles at the company, including Bill Ford, Henry Ford III and Ford English. Elena Ford, another great-great-granddaughter of Henry Ford, is the Blue Oval's chief customer experience officer. A fifth family member, Al Uzielli, works as Ford's liaison to Hollywood and the entertainment industry.

Still, skepticism of family members in prominent leadership roles and their qualifications — generally anonymously whispered instead of openly stated — is not news to Fords who've worked on the inside. Bill Ford insists Ford English and Ford III were rigorously vetted by the board's independent directors and says they offer a combination of "business acumen," an understanding of company values and a "fresh perspective" to their new roles.

"The independent directors ran a very tough process for the two of them," Bill Ford told The Detroit News in an interview. "They probably did more due diligence, more interviews and more background checks than they had for any other director."

He added: "There are very few companies that have 118 years of family involvement. And part of my job has been to help identify talent with the company." Ford English and Ford III "care deeply about the values of our company, our employees and all the people who care about Ford. They understand it. They feel it. And they carry it with them."

He acknowledged some critics "are predisposed to discount everything that you do because you're a family member." The dual position held by family members, he said, requires "a fairly thick skin," especially when the automaker is navigating adversity or struggling with a languishing share price.

Time of transformation

If elected at the annual shareholders meeting on May 13, Ford III and Ford English, known as "Xan" to her family and close friends, would join the board as Ford is undergoing one of its most consequential transformations in history. The automaker is repositioning itself to keep pace in an industry rapidly evolving to electrification from more than 120 years powered by internal combustion engines.

Ford English, 33, began her career working in fashion merchandising and now serves as a director of Ford corporate strategy. Having earned a bachelor's degree from Stanford University and an MBA from Harvard Business School, she brings several years of experience working in the autonomous vehicle and electrification space.

Her current responsibilities, according to a company biography, include "connectivity, tech stack and software strategies." She previously served as the director of markets and operations for Ford's autonomous vehicles division, where she worked on bringing driverless vehicle services to market.

She joined the AV team in 2017 and became a founding member of the division in 2018. Ford English previously was part of a team that worked with cities to understand the best way to deploy mobility services. She also represents Ford on the board of electric vehicle maker Rivian Automotive LLC in which Ford has an equity interest.

In addition to her family ties and experience in corporate strategy, company officials said her board nomination was tied to her "knowledge of autonomous vehicle operations" and how it would "allow her to offer valuable insights as the company expands its mobility business."

Meanwhile, Henry Ford III, 40, has been at Ford since 2006 and has served in a variety of roles across the company. He holds a bachelor's degree from Dartmouth College and an MBA from MIT's Sloan School of Management. Currently director of investor relations, Ford III previously served on the company's corporate strategy skill team, as the global marketing manager for Ford's performance division, and in other positions in labor relations, purchasing, marketing and sales, and corporate strategy.

He serves on a number of boards, including sitting since February 2019 on the board of the Ford Foundation in New York. If he is elected a Ford Motor director, it would mark the first time in 43 years that a Ford family member would sit on both boards. The last family member to do so was Ford III's grandfather, Henry Ford II, who resigned the foundation board in 1976 amid disgust with its leadership and leftward direction.

In an interview, Darren Walker, CEO of the Ford Foundation, told The News he hopes Henry Ford III — known by family members as "Sonny" — will continue as "an essential part of our board" at least through the rest of his six-year term.

"This is a very wise decision by the board of Ford Motor Company," Walker said. "He's an exemplary board member of the foundation. He possesses a unique mix of IQ and EQ. Asks good questions. Probes appropriately. Is curious. Wants to understand the problems. Interested in unvarnished, behind-the-curtain experience of the foundation."

In nominating him to the Ford Motor board, directors noted Ford III's "cross-functional experience" in the company, as well as his leadership role in investor relations "as the company continues its focus on value creation."

"Henry's worked in the investment community, in IR now," Bill Ford explained. "He has a really good feel for what the investment community is looking for from Ford. That's also really important for our board. They don't talk to the investment community every day — and he is."

The board's selection of a family member without any experience in the company would have raised eyebrows, Cole said. But in the case of Ford English and Ford III: "They grew up in the House of Ford. They understand the role the family has. And as board members, what they're interested in is preserving the history and success of the Ford Motor Company."

He believes, too, that the family learned about the value of empowering strong, team-oriented leaders from outside the family after the turbulent tenure of former CEO Jacques Nasser, who was fired in 2001. That experience persuaded Bill Ford, then chairman, to take over as CEO before superstar CEO Alan Mulally was appointed in 2006 to complete a turnaround later buffeted by the global financial meltdown.

"The big deal to the family is, (they) want to be involved in this company, but (they) want to make sure that the Ford Motor Company continues as a world-class company," Cole said. "That issue has been amplified by the pandemic. But now with electrification, with autonomy, all the stuff that's going on, what it says is that a successful company has to not just think about what it always has been in the past, but it is appropriately preparing for a very complicated future."

The move earned positive attention on Wall Street, as well. Ford's stock climbed more than 4% at close of market Friday, to $13.37 per share — its highest close since 2016.

The proposed board changes, meanwhile, also earned a nod of approval from the United Auto Workers. The union represents tens of thousands of Ford autoworkers and historically has enjoyed a productive relationship with successive generations of Ford family members active in the operations of the company bearing their name.

"In an age of short-term Wall Street focused management decisions, Ford Motor Company has benefited from the stability and continuity of the Ford family's involvement in the management of one of America's most iconic corporations," UAW President Rory Gamble said in a statement.

"With this passing of the torch, Ford ... has achieved what many corporations have lost — a corporate culture that is rooted in the past, while addressing the daily pressures of the present, and through the lens of a family company committed to a longer-term view of the future."

jgrzelewski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JGrzelewski

daniel.howes@detroitnews.com

Twitter: DanielHowes_TDN