BRADFORD WERNLE

Will Ford’s transition buck history?

COMMENTARY
Bradford Wernle covers Ford for Automotive News.
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At last Thursday’s joyous Ford Motor Co. executive succession announcement, the man sitting at center stage seemed to be fighting back tears at times. Who could blame Bill Ford? He’s losing a wise, trusted counselor, friend and miracle worker in outgoing CEO Alan Mulally. But he’s also putting the enterprise into what he sees as a safe pair of hands — Mark Fields.

A harmonious transfer of executive leadership at Ford has not always been assured.

“If you look back at the history of our company, maybe we’ve never had a smooth transition, all the way back to my great-grandfather,” Bill Ford said.

The story of Henry Ford I and his fraught relationship with his son Edsel was a Shakespearean tragedy. The elder Ford waged what historian Douglas Brinkley called a “relentless campaign to humiliate his only heir.”

Henry I refused to relinquish the reins to his son, often dismissing Edsel’s creative ideas and eventually driving the younger man to despair. Edsel died of stomach cancer in 1943 at age 49. Some felt the real cause was a broken heart.

Only after Edsel’s wife, Eleanor, threatened to sell her public shares did Henry I back down from his plan to put his thuggish henchman Harry Bennett in charge and name her son Henry Ford II president in 1945.

In 1978, Henry II fired Lee Iacocca. In 2001, Bill Ford orchestrated the untidy departure of the flamboyant Jacques Nasser.

Last week Bill Ford thanked Mulally for ensuring there will be no tortuous transition this time.

“Alan is a hall of fame CEO,” Bill Ford said. “But most hall of fame CEOs have a hard time letting go. They go kicking and screaming. And then chaos ensues and there is not a smooth transition. In many ways, Alan’s best act is his final act by giving the company this wonderful opportunity to have an amazing transition.”

You can reach Bradford Wernle at bwernle@crain.com.


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