DETROIT -- During a 27-year career at Ford Motor Co., Mike Richards oversaw the launch of the first Lincoln Navigator and held several high-level marketing positions. At one point, he had an office next to now-CEO Mark Fields.
Despite being let go in 2008, when the automaker was slashing jobs to survive the industry downturn, "I still have blue blood," Richards told Automotive News this month. "I am still as loyal to Ford as they come."
But in his new life as a software company executive, Ford has suddenly become Richards' adversary.
His firm, Austin, Texas-based Versata Software, is suing Ford for $1 billion, accusing the automaker of stealing its trade secrets to create a copycat version of a program used to help configure vehicles under development and reduce warranty costs. General Motors, Nissan Motor and Fiat Chrysler are among other automakers that Versata says use its software.
In statements and court filings, Ford has denied stealing anything from Versata. It told a federal judge in Texas that it has a "royalty-free license to create derivative works" of the Versata software it used until abruptly terminating the relationship at the end of 2014. Ford received two patents on the replacement program this year.
"Ford's patented software does not use or infringe any Versata intellectual property and Versata has provided no basis for their claims against us," Ford said in a statement last week. "We are confident that we will ultimately prevail in this case and we look forward to the opportunity to present our evidence at trial."
Ford and Versata began working together in 1998, while Richards was a Lincoln brand manager. He didn't know anything about it or use it then but says Versata's software helped boost Ford profits during a very successful time for the automaker.
"A lot of things that were going on that were tailwinds for us," he said, "were probably because of this software."