DETROIT — Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford Motor Co., displayed the tightrope act he is performing during a Tuesday address at the Detroit Economic Club.
The great-grandson of Henry Ford wants to be seen as a futurist in the auto industry. He talks about what the industry, and his company, need to do in the future — shift to “electrification” (more electric vehicles and gasoline-electric hybrids) and autonomous vehicles.
Yet, Ford Motor — as of now — is a company tethered to the past. The automaker last week reported improved third-quarter earnings. The main reason? It sold more large pickups at higher prices.
“Part of my role is to look ahead,” Bill Ford said during the economic club presentation.
During the talk, he cited how the “internal combustion engine is giving way to electrification” and how 3D printing and autonomous technology may play a larger role. (As an aside, 3D printing, in an auto context, applies more to molding, rather than mass-produced parts.)
“Every single piece of the business is going to change or will be changing,” Bill Ford said. “This is an amazing time. There will be winners and losers like we haven’t seen in some time.”
Maybe. But investors haven’t rewarded Ford, despite years of profitability since the 2008 financial crisis.
Right now, the executive chairman is in a “you broke it, you bought it” moment. CEO Alan Mulally brought Ford back from the brink during his 2006-2014 reign.
Mulally’s tenure, however, wasn’t an exercise in futurism. Much of it consisted of divesting over-priced acquisitions (Jaguar, Volvo, et. al) and concentrating on getting the basic business back in shape.
Mulally’s successor, Mark Fields, was forced out in May because he wasn’t viewed as moving fast enough to adapt to the future.
In the three years since Mulally departed, the automotive landscape has changed. Telsa, an electric-car maker that hasn’t turned an annual profit, enjoys investor love because it’s categorized as a “tech” company. That’s similar to Amazon.com. Amazon gets investor love because it’s a “tech” company, not a retail company. That shift has made Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos one of the richest men on the planet.
At one time, key members of the Ford family would have that status. Don’t cry for them, but they’re not in the Bezos class.
Anyway, Bill Ford made his case that Ford Motor (founded in 1903) can still thrive.
“To me, it’s not going to be who’s first,” the executive chairman said. “It’s who’s most thoughtful to the market who will win.”
After the talk, the executive took some questions from reporters.
Under questioning, Bill Ford said the automaker still has something up its sleeve.
“You don’t want to telegraph where you’re going,” he said. “We are trying to provide clarity.”
Bill Ford spoke before a friendly audience at the economic club. The organization represents a membership that has an investment in his company’s success. Still, the executive said Ford Motor isn’t taking its place in the industry for granted.
“I wake up every morning scared and I mean that in a good way.”