Exclusive: No return to Ford CEO job for a relaxed Bill Ford

LAGUNA NIGUEL, California Tue Apr 13, 2010 10:00am EDT

Ford family scion and executive chairman of Ford Motor Company Bill Ford Jr. gives an exclusive interview to Reuters at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference in Laguna Niguel, California, April 12, 2010. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Ford family scion and executive chairman of Ford Motor Company Bill Ford Jr. gives an exclusive interview to Reuters at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference in Laguna Niguel, California, April 12, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

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LAGUNA NIGUEL, California (Reuters) - Bill Ford Jr., the scion of Ford Motor Co (F.N), relishes his current job as the automaker's executive chairman because it allows him to focus on the future -- a future that he says does not include returning to the job of chief executive.

Besides, if Ford has his way, the CEO post won't open for years since he has taken to half-jokingly urging incumbent Alan Mulally to put off consideration of his own retirement until the middle of the next decade.

But when it does come open, Ford is confident he won't be called again, because this time -- unlike in 2001 when he became chief executive -- the company has a bench of managers who will be ready to step up to the plate.

"No, I don't see myself going back ever," said Ford in an interview with Reuters on Monday while he attended the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference. "You never say never, but it would be hard to envision the circumstances."

At 52, Ford appears to be a happy man. The company founded by his great grandfather, Henry Ford, has steered its way back to profitability and was the only Detroit automaker that was not forced to take government funding to restructure in bankruptcy.

"I take great pleasure in the fact that Ford has not only survived, but really is being held in such high regard now around the country and around the globe," he said.

These days, Ford gets to do things that a CEO might not have time for, like attend a conference on green ideas, a theme he has been promoting since the height of the SUV boom a decade ago when it was largely spurned by Detroit.

His vibe is relaxed, as is his dress -- blue jeans and a sport coat.

Ford also has time to play a lot of hockey, some times three times a week, and has "a blast" at the winter tournaments. He works with the community to help revive downtrodden Detroit and spends time with his four children.

MESSAGE TO MULALLY: STAY

He is obviously smitten with Mulally, the CEO he hired from Boeing in 2006 to carry the company through a major restructuring. That has meant deep cost cutting, the sale of luxury units like Volvo at a steep loss and bringing the different regions to a unified global product strategy.

It also meant borrowing more than $23 billion in late 2006 in what amounted to a bet that it could use the funds to restructure on the brink of a crushing global downturn.

Under Mulally, the company has managed to make that bet pay off for investors. Ford posted a $2.7 billion profit in 2009, snapping a three-year streak of losses totaling $30 billion.

"It's been quite a high wire act without a net I think for the last two years," Ford said.

"I always believed we had the right plan, the question was did we have enough time. When I look back 18 months, probably when things looked the bleakest, it was never in my mind any question of whether we had the right plan or whether we were doing the right things. It was whether the economy would give us enough time that we could actually pull this off."

Ford says he hopes Mulally, 64, will stay for a very long time, but says he is confident that the company has developed potential successors in recent years.

"The day Alan retires, which I keep telling him 2025 is a good year for that, we are going to have some really good capable and qualified people ready to step in, which makes me feel great," said Ford.

"I think part of the reason I stepped in was because we didn't have that bench strength."

As CEO, Ford was a proponent of fuel-saving and hybrid car technology but struggled to implement that vision or to reform a corporate culture that insiders long described as riven by factions.

Mulally, by contrast, has won credit for hammering home a message internally and externally that there is only "one Ford," a unified chain of command that ends in his office at the automaker's Dearborn, Michigan headquarters.

Last year, Ford celebrated his 30th anniversary at the company, although he says he really has been with Ford since the day he was born.

Ford, who grew up in the wealthy Detroit enclave of Grosse Pointe, and attended Princeton, has spoken in the past about his sense of duty to preserve the Ford family legacy and about his own ambiguity about where he best fit into the enterprise.

In his early years at Ford, he even briefly used the name "Bill Clay" so that other workers would not be put off by his pedigree.

More recently, he expressed sympathy for Akio Toyoda, another automotive family scion trying to steer his company, Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T), through a crisis prompted by a series of safety recalls.

"Any time anything happens to Ford, it's personal...and I'm sure he feels the same way," Ford said in February. "Other people can resign and go home and do other things. But when your name is on the building and you have the history and the passion, you're in for the long haul."

Ford, who has become the public face of the Ford family and their investment in the company, said the rest of the clan shared his view that there is no walking away.

The question of the family's commitment to the company is a recurring theme for Ford watchers since it owns 4 percent of the company's stock but controls 40 percent of voting rights.

"I am really proud of my family," said Ford. "During the darkest days, they could have panicked, they could have given up, they could have, you know, but everybody wanted to hang in there. Everybody believes in the plan. That allowed the management to really focus on executing the plan. There were no issues from the family side."

As for the employees, he regards them as "members of my extended family" and he felt bad when they were affected by the tough actions of the restructuring, including thousands of job cuts. "And yet, it was appropriate what we did and the company has emerged stronger," he said.

(Editing by Lincoln Feast)

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