Have you hired a Ford lately?

September 21, 1998|By Robert Reno

EVEN IF William Clay Ford Jr. were a manager of proven genius, chances of his ascending to the chairmanship of Ford Motor Co. at the tender age of 41 would have been close to zilch.

To pretend that his appointment last week wasn't an act of nepotism is silly. True, young Mr. Ford will have Jacques Nasser, Ford's new chief executive officer, to steady his hand. And he stressed that "I will lead the board. Jac will lead the company." But this seems only to suggest young Mr. Ford, great-grandson of the company's founder, isn't yet up to leading the corporation he chairs.

He was head of its Swiss operation and once ran the climate-control division. But these are hardly positions from which managers rocket to the chairmanship of the world's second-largest automobile company.

Still, there was not a dissenting or disparaging voice to be heard about Mr. Ford's appointment. This is because: a) He is not known to be insufferable or incompetent; b) It wouldn't do any good. It may come as a surprise to the ordinary shareholders of Ford that they are the second-class owners. The family's class B shares are worth 10.7 votes for every one cast by the rest of the company's "owners."

An environmentalist

This puts an immense obligation on young Mr. Ford not to behave like a spoiled rich kid. He seems to be up to it since, from what I hear, nothing particularly bad is known about him, except that people in the industry suspect he's a raving environmentalist.

Let's hope they're right. He may decide to make Ford into a green company aggressively committed to lower emissions and safety. This could give General Motors and Chrysler fits because they'll have to spend a lot of money playing catch-up.

All that said, young Billy's appointment seems to make a lot of sense. It's not as if the Fords aren't going to control the company, no matter who's chairman. If they'd wanted to appoint an orangutan chairman, nobody could have stopped them.

Also, Billy's credentials are an awful lot more impressive than those of most fourth generations of the super rich, which tend to be populated by much-married socialites, party-going layabouts, right-wing nuts and conscience-stricken heiresses who turn vegetarian and run off to consult Eastern religious cults.

Besides, the timing is perfect for slipping a well-educated young family member into a scaled-down chairmanship where, with any luck, he'll grow into a competent chief executive officer sometime in the next century. After several good years, the company is sitting on a hoard of $20 billion in cash and may be poised to overtake troubled General Motors as the No. 1 automaker, a position it surrendered to GM in 1932.

Even if he were a callow young puppy, it'd be a hard situation for him to blow.

Robert Reno is a Newsday columnist.

Pub Date: 9/21/98

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