Chairman Interviews at Fortune Global Forum: Bill Ford

  • January 21, 2018
  • Scott
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One of the highlights of the Fortune Global Forum were the really fantastic interviews with the CEOs (and Chairmen!) of amazing companies.  Even for CEOs, these are heroes that are looked up to in large part.  Each one of them had a way of distilling really important initiatives in their companies down to *very* simple phrasing that anyone could remember.  This is part of a series of short posts based on my notes in each session:

Bill Ford Interview

I was really impressed with Bill Ford’s interview. I’ve been following Bill Ford since he first became chair at Ford, and started putting his imprint on the company.  And while Ford has had its ups and downs during his tenure, you have to admire his forthrightness in an interview, and his ability to answer the hard questions, as well as his vision for the company.

When challenged about the pace with which Ford competes on technology – whether automated driving or electric vehicles, his response was threefold:

  1. Building vehicles is hard work
  2. Integrating technology into vehicles is hard work
  3. Ford has great IP and has not been asleep at the switch.  He proposes that you’ll see lots of partnerships between Ford and big-and-small tech, and OEMs.  And traditional suppliers.

Bill reminds us that Ford was the original disruptor in transformation – and it is his job to put Ford in position to play that role again. When asked about appointing Jim Hackett as the new CEO of Ford, Bill’s response was that he’s looking for two things in a CEO:

  1. Run the day to day business, which is already a full-time job for any normal CEO
  2. be a thought leader with me on the future of Ford and transportation.

In Jim, Bill Ford sees someone who has transformed Steelcase and took it to #1 in their industry, and therefore someone that would be a good partner at Ford.

In a discussion on autonomous vehicles, I really appreciated that Ford pointed out that we have to answer ethics and trust questions first.  That discussion hasn’t really happened around the ethics of how an autonomous car should prioritize safety for its passengers, pedestrians, and passengers in other vehicles.  In order to help people you have to answer these softer issues first.

He was also challenged on what Ford’s responsibility for the social implications of autonomy are – in other words, Ford’s responsibility for the prospective loss of trucking jobs.  Of note: this kind of challenge wasn’t really presented to the other speakers in other industries who by all accounts are likely to eliminate whole classes of employment.  But Bill took it on.  Ford’s responsibility is to start the dialog, highlight the issue, and be thoughtful about how we approach solutions.  But we can’t solve this one on our own.

He was also asked if he was frustrated that Ford didn’t move faster in various areas of tech. But his answer is pretty sanguine – the tech just wasn’t there yet. Batteries were too heavy, automation software wasn’t good enough – even mapping software wasn’t good enough.  The basic R&D behind many of these improvements hadn’t fully formed yet.

Asked if he would invest more if the Tax bill passed – his answer was that Ford never stopped investing in the US, and the tax bill wouldn’t change that philosophy.

He was also asked about Volvo, Range Rover, Jaguar – and why they didn’t work, what did Ford learn from those?  And Bill’s answer was again very candid: that it wasn’t that they didn’t work, it was the timing. From 2005-2008 they had a real crunch – without the downturn they would have held on to those product lines and brands and been successful with them.

All in all, Bill Ford came across as incredibly relate-able and a great leader.  Fortune covers some of his talk here.

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