Bill Ford must grow quickly to compete in the big game

The thing is, Bill Ford really DOES care about the environment. When he was just chairman of the board of Ford Motor Co., that was good enough.

He got some sympathetic press, and that shed a dim but positive light on the company.

Now, he has thrown himself onto the battlefield against such tough guys as General Motors’ Rick Wagoner, DaimlerChrysler’s Juergen Schrempp, Toyota’s Hiroshi Okuda and Nissan’s Carlos Ghosn. If he is going to run with those experienced executives, William Clay Ford Jr., 44, great-grandson of Henry Ford, will have to overcome his deficit in experience in a hurry.

From now on, when Ford Motor Co. loses money, Jacques Nasser won’t get the blame.

During World War II, when the young and inexperienced Henry Ford II was brought back from the Navy to take over his grandpa’s company, he hired a wise and experienced GM executive, Ernest Breech, to do the things he didn’t know how to do.

Bill Ford is now his own chairman and CEO. His Ernie Breech — if there is one — is Nick Scheele, the affable Englishman whose long tenure in bringing Jaguar into the 20th century has been followed by two very short tenures in reorganizing Ford, first in Europe and since last summer in North America.

Scheele, 57, becomes Bill Ford’s COO. He’ll need a lot of authority. At the press conference for the new management team, Scheele correctly identified Ford Motor as “a car and truck company,” avoiding the touchy-feely “consumer company” that Nasser said he was building.

Temperamentally, Scheele is Nasser’s opposite. Nasser is hard-charging, self-confident, visionary, even pushy. He also really does care about people.

Anybody can get along with Scheele. He’s funny, congenial, chatty. He’s not known for the big vision. At Ford of Europe, he calmly made the hard decisions about plant closings, and he got products developed on time.

When Henry Ford II retired as chairman of Ford Motor Co. in 1979, he made it very clear that the company was to be a real public company, professionally managed. For more than two decades, that’s what it has been.

Now Bill Ford, who held a number of mid-level management jobs at Ford Motor before quitting in 1995, says he’s best qualified to tame the beast.

If he can use Nick Scheele and a few other top Ford executives properly, he can succeed. But it won’t be easy.

You can reach Peter Brown at pbrown@crain.com

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