Greeting big wheel at Ford

CEO: Jacques Nasser, the automaker's globe-hopping chief, is latest executive to tell the public `I'm sorry.'

September 06, 2000|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,SUN STAFF

He's got a French first name, an Arabic surname and an unmistakable Australian accent. So who is this guy on TV apologizing for the Ford Motor Co.?

He's Jacques Nasser, CEO of the car company, and he's taken to television to try to stem the tide of public ire over reports that the tires on Ford SUVs are inexplicably shredding, causing injury and death.

"I wanted you to hear directly from me ..." he says into the camera.

Nasser isn't the only businessman being sorry all over the airwaves. United Airlines chairman James Goodwin is also making television ads, apologizing for flight delays and promising to do better. In fact, the landscape is seemingly littered with contrite corporate titans these days.

But Nasser, who will be testifying about the tire calamity on Capitol Hill today, cuts an eye-catching (and ear-catching) figure with his dashing Arabic looks and his Crocodile Dundee accent.

Born in Lebanon, he immigrated to Australia with his family when he was 4 years old. He recalled for Fortune magazine that he and his brother fought their way through school, where they were ridiculed as outsiders.

At 52, Nasser has been with Ford since he joined the company in Australia at age 20 after earning a business degree at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

He worked his way up through Latin American and European operations as a finance specialist. He and his Australian wife of 28 years, Jennifer, and their four children moved almost every three years, living in Venezuela, Argentina, Australia, London and the Philippines, as well as Detroit three times.

Nasser speaks Arabic, Portuguese and Spanish, as well as English, and easily slips between these languages. He pronounces his first name "Jack" and reportedly dislikes the moniker "Jack the Knife," something he earned for his cost-cutting initiatives.

He is only 5-foot-6, but he is described as a dynamic speaker and a good storyteller. His taste for Savile Row suits is evident, even on the small screen.

Nasser is the reluctant star of the television ads, corporate America's version of a mea culpa. A hard-driving and impatient innovator, he's reportedly frustrated that the problem with Firestone's tires is diverting his plans to propel Ford into the future.

One of his first acts upon assuming Ford's presidency in late 1998 was to issue personal computers and color printers to all 350,000 Ford employees, to the tune of about $300 million.

For as little as $5 a month, Ford workers are wired to each other and the Internet as part of Nasser's plan to keep Ford ahead. (The computer giveaway was considered such a brilliant idea that Delta Airways and Intel immediately copied it.)

Nasser has also been exploring the possibility that one day customers may submit their own specs over the Internet for a built-to-order Ford vehicle.

So where are the Fords in today's Ford Motor Co.?

Actually, Nasser shares the power with 41-year-old William Clay Ford Jr., great-grandson of the founder, who was named chairman two years ago after a period in the 1990s when Ford had outside chairmen.

Ford, who once reported to Nasser and is said to be great friends with the company president, spends most of his time running the Detroit Lions for his ailing father and raising his four children with wife, Lisa.

Only one of Nasser's four children is still at home - the three oldest are in college - and his wife describes herself as a de facto single parent. Her husband appears to be wedded to his job, for which he received a whopping $13 million in compensation last year.

According to Todd Nissen, writing in the Toronto Star, Nasser starts work before 7 a.m. and works most weekends. He has a passion for trucks, drives himself in a Ford or a competitor's vehicle, and he likes to hang around the design studios.

So, if honesty is the best policy for getting out of this giant consumer jams, Nasser must be telling the truth when he tells the camera: "We've been working around the clock to identify the problem ..."

Wire services contributed to this article.

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