The Ford Family as Owners

by John L. Ward

Friend and colleague Amy Schuman urged me to read American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company (by Bryce Hoffman, 2012). It’s a compelling and captivating story of a dramatic turnaround. It’s also a great family business story.

The family business topic I want to focus on is the role of the Ford family as owners and governors. There are 13 fourth generation cousins with 30 members of the next generation ascending.

  • For the longest time the G4 cousins have met quarterly – mixing a social and business briefing agenda. They never voted; they always worked for consensus.
  • For decades they believed that their role as owners was to provide unity, stability and long-term commitment.
  • Where there was conflict it was not from company issues but from old resentments over perceived fairness in family matters.
  • In their meetings, as controlling owners, they discussed
    • Confidence in the CEO;
    • Contingency plans if the CEO or strategy didn’t work out;
    • Significant debt decisions;
    • Dividend policy;
    • Maintaining control of the company.
  • Bill Jr., as executive chairman, took on several roles:
    • Emphasizing company innovation
    • Fighting off cultural complacency
    • Providing institutional memory
    • Identifying CEO candidates with the board
    • Managing family owners relations
  • Other family members
    • Served as cultural ambassadors with dealers;
    • Visited locations;
    • Participated in local philanthropy.

Family business owners will find even more value in the book. Founder Henry I was a classic example of “founderitis.” He also had a magnificent vision and social purpose. His son, Edsel II, was overwhelmed by his father’s inability to let go. Subsequent generations had to work hard to earn credibility and fight off perceptions as “rich dilettantes.” Bill Jr., now chairman, received invaluable, trusted coaching from independent directors who themselves understood family business – especially Hocksday of Hallmark.

Then there’s the bulk of the fantastic book telling of Mulally’s turnaround strategy and his philosophy of management.

Enjoy. I’m quite sure you’ll embrace the stories.  Thanks, Amy.

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