In 1979, in his senior year at Princeton, William Clay Ford Jr. went job hunting like all of his friends, scheduling interviews with a couple of banks. That may have seemed strange for a great-grandson of Henry Ford and scion of one of America's wealthiest and most influential families. But Billy, as he was known universally, had always been different.
Far from deeming it "bunk," he was fascinated by history (it was his major in college), especially the enormous influence of his ancestors, but he had never shown much interest in the company that bore their name. His parents made him work summers for his spending money. He grew up in the shadow of a pair of accomplished older sisters, and because his father, William Clay Ford Sr., shunned the limelight, he was spared the scrutiny that attended so many of the other Fords of his generation.
According to The Fords: An American Epic, by Peter Collier and David Horowitz, Bill Sr. "took Billy on as his project. Remembering the role sports had played in his own life, he encouraged Billy to play Little League baseball with all the public school kids and to play hockey with boys from a local blue-collar neighborhood."
Billy told Douglas Brinkley in Wheels for the World, a centennial history of Ford Motor: "All my teammates, whether it was in football or hockey or baseball, were all guys who never went to college."
His hero: Gordie Howe
One night, when Billy was still in his teens, his dad took him for a drive - and a man-to-man chat - in his Lincoln Continental. He asked him who he considered a role model, someone he would like to emulate in life. His answer: "Gordie Howe," the legendary star of the Detroit Red Wings hockey team.
Then, while shooting pool with his dad one night after graduating from college, Billy surprised him by saying he wanted to work for Ford Motor. "I thought I owed it to my heritage, so to speak, to give the company my best shot," he said later, according to Collier and Horowitz. "I approached it with the notion of going one step at a time. If I liked it, okay, I'd stay. If I didn't like it, I'd leave."
Bill Sr. was taken aback. "Are you sure that's what you want to do?"
Billy assured him that it was.
"Well, you don't have to do it on my account," his father said. "Life's too short to be miserable. Do what you want. But do it well."
In contrast, again, to the rest of his generation of Fords, Billy had done well as an undergraduate. In 1983, he married Lisa Vanderzee, who was three years behind him at Princeton. They have two daughters and two sons.
And after four years of what he called "shit jobs," according to the Collier and Horowitz book, he went to the prestigious Sloan School of Business at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and did well again, completing a two-year management program in 15 months.
He returned to Ford as a member of the finance staff, then became a product planner in advanced vehicles development. Then it was on to the company's New York/New Jersey district sales office, before becoming director of commercial vehicle marketing for Ford of Europe in 1986 and chairman of Ford of Switzerland in 1987.
That was the position he held in September of that year, when Henry Ford II died. Billy and his cousin Edsel Ford II, Henry Ford II's only son, sought seats on the board of directors, despite the opposition of Chairman and CEO Donald Petersen.
"He regarded both as lightweights, and abhorred the thought that, unlike himself, Edsel and Bill Jr. might rise to the top of Ford Motor because of their name instead of their talent," wrote Paul Ingrassia and Joseph B. White in Comeback: The Fall and Rise of the American Automobile Industry. "Others inside Ford Motor, including many in the executive ranks admired the fact that two heirs who could have chosen a life of idle leisure were willing, indeed eager, to come to work in the company.
"Edsel and Billy weren't morons. And even if they weren't the most talented young men in the company, their family standing, their very Fordness, should count for something. If that made Ford Motor something less than a pure meritocracy, well, everyone who invested in or worked for the company knew that beforehand."
Stifled by Petersen
The cousins got their seats but, unlike the other 19 directors, no committee assignments. (See story on Page 254.) This meant that Petersen effectively had shut them out of the decision-making process.
Neither of them uttered a word through their first nine board meetings, according to Ingrassia and White. Then they spoke, long and loud, detailing their dismay to a reporter from Fortune magazine.
The ensuing cover story did the trick: Five months after it appeared, Edsel and Billy were made members of the executive and finance committees - the board's two most influential committees. Ten months after that, Petersen was gone, forced out in part by the friction between him and the Fords.
Meanwhile, Billy had returned from Switzerland to manage Ford's Heavy Truck Engineering and Manufacturing Division. He became, in short order, the Ford Automotive Group's director of business strategy, then its executive director, then general manager of the Climate Control Division.
Succeeding his father
In September 1994, he announced that he would resign as vice president of Ford Automotive Operations' commercial truck vehicle center, a post he had held for only four months, to succeed his father as chairman of the finance committee on Jan. 1, 1995. At 37, he was the youngest person to hold that job.
"William Jr. - young, energetic and highly regarded - is expected to infuse the committee chairmanship with new vigor," wrote Automotive News in a front-page story. His "growing corporate influence and power was widely viewed by industry pundits as a move toward eventual leadership of the company."
Said the new finance committee chairman - who would be known in the company as Bill Ford, rather than William Jr. or Billy: "I feel like I'm not working for myself, I'm working for my children and my grandchildren."
The finance committee chairmanship had been held by a Ford since Henry II assumed it in 1979 and, since the family's wealth depended entirely on the company's fortunes, the family members' stake in their namesake's affairs vastly exceeded that of nonfamily directors and executives.
"He had studied his great-grandfather and felt that the need to 'do something big' was in his blood," wrote Collier and Horowitz.
Said Brinkley in Wheels for the World: "The fact that Bill Ford Jr. had his own style, and didn't much care to live up to anyone else's idea of the 'modern businessman,' put him in a league with only one other man: his great-grandfather, Henry Ford. The elder Ford didn't fit a mold; he didn't have to, and neither did Bill Ford Jr."