Edsel Ford: `I Want To Be Judged On My Ability'

Throughout his career at Ford Motor Co., Edsel B. Ford II has delighted in tweaking archrival General Motors Corp. When he began a two-year stint running Ford of Australia, GM dealers there sent him a pair of boxing gloves. He sent back a towel, suitable for throwing in. Later, while at Harvard business school's three-month management development program, his class toured GM's Framingham (Mass.) assembly plant. Edsel showed up for the trip wearing a Ford racing team jacket.

Ford isn't doing much clowning these days. Since May, he has been president and chief operating officer of Ford Motor Credit Co., the carmaker's $6.9 billion-a-year finance arm. It's unfamiliar territory for a man who spent nearly two decades in car sales and marketing, and he's the first to admit that the transition hasn't been easy. "I'm not comfortable yet," says Ford, 42. "It's going to take some more time for me to really understand the basics of Ford Credit."

BOARD GAME. He had better get going. One day in the not-so-distant future, Edsel could become the first family member to run Ford since his father, the late Henry Ford II, retired in 1980. But even if the family, with 40% of the company's voting stock, pushed for his promotion to the corner office, Edsel knows he needs demonstrable finance skills--not only to run Ford but to convince others he is qualified for the post. Now, facing the most important challenge of his career, America's best-known industrial scion is eager to prove he's, well, no Edsel. "I work hard, and I don't expect favors," he says. "I want to be an average employee. I want to be judged on my ability to do my job."

How about his well-publicized 1989 dispute with then Ford Chairman Donald E. Petersen? Ford made headlines by complaining about what he considered his limited role on the board of directors. He insists it was not an attempt to capitalize on his family connections, that he was simply asking to be treated "as a regular director--nothing more, nothing less." Petersen says he fully intended to give Edsel and his cousin, William Clay Ford Jr., more clout: "It was only a matter of timing." Since then, both Fords have joined the executive and finance committees, where they are active members. Last year, Edsel made a presentation on global sales, and next year, he aims to make one for Ford Credit.

Assuming he does well at Credit, Edsel could have a shot at the chairman's job in around nine years. Current Chairman Harold A. Poling is set to retire in 1993, and the front-runner as his successor is Allan D. Gilmour, president of Ford Automotive Group. Edsel could certainly be a candidate when Gilmour, now 57, steps down. Among other executives vying for the top job, Ford may face stiff competition from his brainy, 34-year-old Cousin Bill. But the difference in their ages also could allow Edsel and then Bill to hold the top spot.

Edsel prefers not to talk about how he would run the company--"that would be inappropriate," he says. But in speeches, a common theme is Ford's need for a "global state of mind" in its marketing efforts. He imagines 50% of future growth will come from new and emerging markets such as Eastern Europe, India, and elsewhere in Asia.

As a manager, Ford could not be much more different from his autocratic father. He likes to build a consensus on important decisions and is anything but arbitrary. Dealers are among Ford's most vocal supporters, in part because he has been accessible to them over the years. "There's always great respect for a marketing manager who listens to the dealers, because dealers feel they recognize trends quicker than the manufacturer," says William Ritchie, former president of the Lincoln-Mercury Dealer Council.

Others admire Ford's wide-ranging knowledge of cars and the people who buy them. At Lincoln-Mercury, he sought to attract younger buyers, championing the sporty, Australian-built Capri. It continues to bring in younger drivers. Earlier, Ford leaned on manufacturing to make more stylized wheel covers for the Lynx RX-5 when a shortage of the covers limited supplies of one of his most youth-oriented models.

The biggest complaint about Edsel at Ford is that his career has lacked breadth. Now, after 17 years, he's getting a taste of finance. But he hasn't had a day of manufacturing experience. Should he have planned his career differently? He doesn't think so. "No one ever said to me, 'If you want to be at the top of the company, Edsel, you had better get a job in manufacturing.' "

Others believe Ford has had a sheltered career. "There are too many safeguards built into every position, in the form of advisers and fall guys," says Eugene E. Jennings, professor emeritus at Michigan State University's Eli Broad College of Business Administration. "So he doesn't have the humility of someone who has been decked, picked himself up, and put his career back together."

BRONCO BOOSTER. That's not entirely true. As a marketing and advertising manager for the Ford Div. in the bleak early 1980s, "failure was a month-to-month experience," recalls a former colleague. "Sales objectives weren't being met with any regularity." In response, Edsel liked to stress new products that "added value" to existing lines, such as the popular Eddie Bauer edition Bronco II, with special interiors and color schemes from the catalog company. He also gave Mustang sales a lift by being an early supporter of the car's first convertibles in many years.

But it's fair to say that his new job, running Ford Credit, is a safe one. The unit is one of the few bright spots at Ford. In the first nine months of 1991, it earned a record $585 million, while the parent company was losing $1.8 billion. Edsel also has a strong mentor in Ford Credit Chairman William E. Odom, a finance veteran with 25 years' experience. Still, Ford doesn't plan on remaining in Odom's protective shadow. "I don't want people to shelter me from the hard decisions," he says. "I remind them that I can't learn if I'm sheltered."

Associates agree that Ford doesn't assert his birthright. "He doesn't expect anybody to carry his bags," says Stephen G. Lyons, general marketing manager of the Lincoln-Mercury Div. When he and Edsel worked at the Ford Div., shuttling between downtown Detroit and Dearborn, Edsel's favorite lunch spot was a McDonald's where they could grab a bite between the two offices. "If I had all his money, I'm not sure I would work as hard as he does," Lyons admits.

Still, executives tread very lightly when the subject turns to Edsel. When BUSINESS WEEK asked one former boss to elaborate on some comments he had made earlier, the Ford public affairs staff advised him against the interview. Almost every employee contacted for this article, even those who had nothing but praise for Ford, asked for anonymity. One senior manager's explanation: "I'm not independently wealthy."

Ford, whose shares in the company are worth $27.9 million, recognizes that he can never be an average Joe. "Being a member of the Ford family in Detroit, you're on duty 24 hours a day," he says. "And you just learn to deal with that."

CAR LOVER. Awkward as it can be, Ford has never wanted to work anywhere but the family company. One of Henry II's three children, and the only son, he attended Babson College, a small Massachusetts school founded in 1919 to train young men to take over their family's businesses. An indifferent student, he took five years to graduate. But he was hardly indifferent about cars. On his first date with Cynthia Neskow, they went to the Boston auto show. When they were married in 1974, race-car driver Jackie Stewart was an usher. Today, their garage holds a 1992 Mercury Sable, a 1961 Jaguar Mark II, a 1974 Ferrari Daytona Spyder, a 1976 German Capri, and a 1991 Ford Explorer, which replaced a Range Rover.

Unlike his father, a jet-setter who left Edsel in the care of a full-time nanny, Ford is a family man all the way. On Sundays, he likes to take his three sons to Detroit Lions games--no business colleagues allowed. All but forsaking the social whirl, he prefers "his own kids' hockey games at these dumpy ice arenas," notes Charlotte Craig, former society columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Edsel's closest brush with local controversy came four years ago, when he bought a home in Grosse Pointe Farms and, over the protests of his neighbors, razed the house to build a bigger one.

Though generally easygoing and personable, Ford's temper flares when he feels he has been wronged. While in Australia, for instance, he played a key role in producing the Falcon XD, a car designed and built almost entirely Down Under. It was a sales success and the leading candidate for Australian Car of the Year honors in 1980. The Australian car magazine Wheels, however, put a lemon on its cover and said no car deserved to win. Infuriated, and unconvinced by the editors' explanation, Ford ran a full-page ad in Wheels showing a bunch of lemons emblazoned with the name of every car sold in Australia. "At least we are in good company," read the caption. "I don't think I've ever been so mad in my entire career," he says, his anger mounting as he recounts the tale. "It was a cheap shot."

Ford's most telling swipe against his friends at GM came in the fall of 1985. As Lincoln-Mercury's general marketing manager, he approved a television ad in which a valet repeatedly confused Buicks and Cadillacs, a jibe at the look-alike designs on GM's newly downsized cars. The ad eventually helped to launch Lincoln-Mercury on a market-share surge. But Ford Motor had avoided challenging its much larger rival for years, and the proposed ad was quite controversial within the company. Edsel fought hard for the ad, even meeting with Chairman Petersen about it. "I'm extremely proud of that ad," Ford says. At Ford Credit, he's grappling with a new species of goals and projects. One objective is boosting U. S. market share, currently around 38% of all new cars and trucks Ford sells. In November, he began spearheading a push by Ford Credit into Eastern Europe. He's also spending a lot of time chatting up dealers--the people who move Ford Credit's product. Most important, Ford is trying to get up to speed in the financial world. "It has been a very, very steep learning curve for me," he admits. If he's going to run the company one day, it's a curve he'll simply have to negotiate.

      BORN Dec. 27, 1948, son of Henry Ford II
      EDUCATION Babson College, 1973
      1974 Joined Ford Motor as a product-planning analyst
      1978-80 Named assistant managing director, Ford Motor of Australia. Responsible
      for car product-planning, sales and marketing, and truck operations
      1981-87 Rose through various marketing and sales jobs with the Ford and
      Lincoln-Mercury Divs.
      1988 Elected to Ford Motor's board of directors
      1989 Named executive director of marketing staff
      1991 Chosen as president and COO of Ford Credit
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