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Lessons From Ford in Crisis

The circumstances surrounding the recall of the Firestone tires that were standard equipment on Ford Explorers has subjected both companies to media, congressional, legal, public and internal scrutiny. Ford CEO Jacque Nasser and Bridgestone/Firestone CEO Masatoshi Ono have been the faces of their companies during the crisis and taken most of the heat. But an additional dimension to the drama at Ford is instructive to family business leaders.

Where’s Bill?

Ford, of course, is a family business. It’s chairman, Bill Ford, is not only the great- grandson of the founder of Ford -- he is also the great-grandson of the founder of Firestone (although there’s been no family involvement at the tire company for more than a generation). As we’ve discussed previously in the Family Business Advisor, thanks to family support, he’s been able to set a unique path. Comments Newsweek’s Allan Sloan: “...he seems to have a golden touch. He can talk about being a ‘change agent’ without having people smirk and can pitch ‘environmentally friendly sport utility vehicles’ -- a contradiction in terms if there ever was one -- with a perfectly straight face.”

But faced with the Firestone/Ford fiasco, Bill has operated primarily behind the scenes. Given young Chairman Ford’s high profile and high marks for his public handling of an explosion that killed several Ford workers and his calls for “greener” car companies, his silence was extensively noted. Business Week opines that having Ford rather than Nasser as spokesman “might have been smarter,” but notes “that is no longer an option,” because his late arrival would undercut the CEO and because of family ties to Firestone.

Newsweek’s Allan Sloan devotes an entire column on Mr. Ford (“Turmoil in a Charmed Life,” September 18, 2000, p.34). He’s described as “wealthy, personable, self- possessed and seemingly unwarped.” The essay offers a kind of ironic sympathy to Ford: “He’s learning the hard way that no matter how much you try to be one of the good guys, there’s a downside to running a company with your name on the door -- people expect you to step up when trouble strikes, and wonder where you are if you don’t.”

“You still have to feel for the man, who must occasionally wake up wondering why he’s worked so hard instead of taking the easy route and living as a trust-fund baby,” Sloan continues. Indeed, in a brief September 25 Newsweek interview, Bill Ford admits, “Personally, this has been just a horrendous period.”

Behind the Scenes

Ford reports “I’ve been involved every step of the way ... every single day, not sleeping, and my stomach’s been in knots.” But Newsweek still calls for Ford’s more public involvement: “If he can step up and deliver in this crisis, it will be clear that he deserves the job, regardless of how he got it.”

While Ford is larger than almost all other family businesses, this case offers important insights:

  • Crises are opportunites for next generation leaders to prove themselves
  • Using the opportunity should not be done at the expense of key non-family executives
  • Once you’ve exposed yourself to the media or other significant constituencies, you will be expected to continue your role
  • Behind the scenes may not be enough
  • Accepting leadership responsibility means not just enjoying prestige and power -- it means taking the heat. As a successor, it can be easier to go along for the ride than actually driving the bus
  • As the leader, you’ll be the focus of advice, second-guessing, and criticism from all quarters, often from people who question whether you deserve your job.
 

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