William Clay Ford Sr. is the youngest of Edsel's three boys and, of course, a grandson of Old Henry.
Bill Sr. retired from his company's board of directors last week after serving 57 years in one capacity or another. He had a much longer and more important company career than his brother Benson, but his mark is far below that of brother Henry II, who saved Ford Motor Co. after World War II with the help of Ernie Breech, Lewis Crusoe, John Bugas and the Whiz Kids.
Bill has held many major jobs at the family store, but he always seemed to work behind the scenes. He was vice chairman. Who remembers a vice chairman? The chairman is the upfront guy.
He was chairman of the finance committee, one of the most vital positions in any large outfit. That's the group that decides how the company spends its money; in Ford Motor's case, it's mountains of money. But the deliberations of the committee are secret. The only notoriety the chairman gets is a line in the proxy statement.
For example, an engineer may develop the legendary 100-mpg carburetor. If the finance committee doesn't appropriate the funds, it never gets built.
The brothers Ford, from left: William Clay Ford Sr., Benson Ford and Henry Ford II. The retiring Bill Ford was a force in Ford Motor design and remains the company's largest individual shareholder.
A giant in the NFL
Bill Sr. (he's 80, but don't call him Old Bill) is also a behind-the-scenes giant of the National Football League. In 1948, he was one of several local businessmen who bought the Detroit Lions from Fred Mandel, of the Chicago department store family.
Bill became president of the Lions in 1961, and three years later he bought out his partners. He has owned the whole kit and caboodle since then. It is the job he has enjoyed the most.
I mentioned that he is a power in the NFL. You had better believe it! Ford Motor spends millions each year on game-day advertising. And the company put up $40 million three years ago to name Ford Field, the half-billion-dollar complex that is the Lions' home.
When Bill Ford Sr. speaks, the NFL listens - intently.
Early in his business career, Bill Ford built a car, and it was a beauty: The 1956 Continental Mark II, a luxury coupe that was hailed as the successor to the magnificent pre-war Continentals that were the pride and joy of Edsel Ford.
Bill's Continental sold for about $10,000 but, unfortunately, it didn't last long - two years. About 3,000 were built.
Why dump such a gorgeous auto, a halo car nonpareil? The word was that after Ford Motor became a public company in 1956, the ultraexpensive (for those days) Continental became a victim of new concerns about the bottom line.
57 years on the board
Bill Ford Sr. in 1994 with his son, Bill Ford Jr., the current CEO of Ford Motor.
His particular interest has been product planning, again a vital behind-the-scenes function. He has been doing it since 1956. He became vice president of product design in 1973. In 1978, he was elected chairman of the executive committee and named to the Office of the Chief Executive.
Next came vice chairman in 1980 and chairman of the finance committee in 1987. He retired as vice chairman in 1989 and as head of the finance committee in 1995.
The Ford-Firestone mess that began in 2000 was especially hard on Bill and his family. Mrs. Ford is the former Martha Firestone.
Their children and the Firestone children are first cousins, and Grandpa Henry Ford and Grandpa Harvey Firestone were buddies who went camping together.
Those jaunts included Thomas Edison and naturalist John Burroughs and a couple of politicians named Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge.
Ford is the company's largest single shareholder. He owns more than 8 million shares of common stock and 4.9 million shares of the family's Class B stock.
No account of Bill Sr.'s activities is complete without noting that his son now holds the two jobs that Bill Sr. approached but never reached. Bill Ford Jr. has been chairman of Ford Motor Co. since 1998 and CEO since 2001.
You may e-mail John K. Teahen Jr. at [email protected]