Alan Mulally's departure from Ford Motor Co. this week will be a big change for the automaker and its new CEO, Mark Fields. But especially, it will open a new chapter for Bill Ford.
Ford is no longer the young guy overseeing executives who once outranked him. With the departure of Mulally, 68, Ford, 57, for the first time will be older than the company's CEO. Fields is 53.
"I think that relationship will change Bill's level of involvement," says one former Ford executive, who sees Bill Ford as becoming Ford's senior strategic leader.
Ford's seniority -- and his 35 years in the executive ranks -- position him as standard-bearer for Mulally's cultural changes and mentor to Ford executives. He has been chairman since 1999 and is ensconced as head of the family that, through its fabled Class B stock, has effective control of the company.
The company declined to make Ford available for an interview. But associates and former colleagues say the last eight years prepared him to better guide the company through a major transition than during the dark days early in the last decade. After the painful ouster of Jacques Nasser in 2001, Bill Ford struggled with the demands of being CEO. He stepped aside in 2006, handing the job to Mulally.
Nick Scheele, 70, who retired as Ford's COO in 2005, stays in touch with Bill Ford. Scheele says Bill Ford has "immense faith" in Fields but also has the self-confidence to "step in if things start going wrong."
Scheele adds that Bill Ford "has an intense internal network of communication that goes outside the normal command level."
"He's got people he's known for 35 years who are not in management control positions," he says. "He'll be getting feedback from a lot of people. He'll know pretty quickly if it's not working."
Allan Gilmour, 80, former Ford vice chairman who retired in 2005, believes the Bill Ford-Mark Fields pairing will make an "ideal combination." Gilmour, who also communicates with Bill Ford, was Bill Ford's boss in the late 1980s.
"The fact that Bill has been there and has had the [CEO] job is useful," Gilmour says. "He saw all the things that happen and don't happen. I think it's a very good combination of backgrounds and skills.
"Bill brings the historical perspective that is almost unparalleled in American business. He's been on the board since late '88. He's seen the good times and the bad times in a cyclical industry."
But at the same time, it's not easy being executive chairman of one of America's most-revered industrial dynasties, Gilmour says.
"Those are lonely jobs," he says. "Who do you talk to?"