Ford must make product the soul of his company

At the age of 44, Bill Ford Jr. has ascended to the top of Ford Motor Co. If things go well, he could be a modern-day anomaly and remain CEO for two decades. That gives him time to build an enduring legacy. He has to take Ford’s latest mantra — get back to basics — and stay there. He must make product the heart and soul of the company that carries his name.

We remember how much mileage Ford gained with its “Quality is Job 1” slogan in the 1980s. Even if actual quality improvements never matched the hype, the campaign sent a message that Ford was serious about building rock-solid cars and trucks. When combined with some sparkling design, such as the 1986 Ford Taurus, Ford enjoyed tremendous success in the late 1980s.

But, somehow, that focus got lost.

Under Alex Trotman, Ford wrapped itself in a huge globalization initiative known as Ford 2000. It was dismantled under Trotman’s successor, Jacques Nasser, who launched a flurry of initiatives of his own.

And as Bill Ford succeeded Nasser last week, the new CEO said that Ford Motor Co. has lost its way.

“There is no question we are going to have a renewed emphasis on the car and truck business,” he said. “That is our goal. We know we can do it. We’ve done it before. We have to get back to it.”

He would have been wise to add another sentence: “And we have to keep at it.”

That said, let’s hope Bill Ford and his new COO, Nick Scheele, truly believe that product is the foundation for strength. It builds the stability that allows other initiatives — whether they be tied to the Internet or the environment — to take hold.

It is worth noting that Toyota Motor Corp., as it tried to rebuild after World War II, studied at what then was an automotive mecca: Ford’s huge Rouge complex in Dearborn, Mich.

Toyota took the best from the Ford system, made adjustments to suit Toyota’s culture and built the manufacturing and product dynamo that endures today. As other companies routinely change agendas and get cast about in the auto industry’s wild cycles, Toyota sticks to its mission, seemingly immune to the pressures faced by other car companies.

As Bill Ford watches the industry’s latest downturn claim another Ford CEO, he must find Toyota’s position to be enviable indeed.

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