Bill Ford’s Struggle to Stay Friends With Donald Trump

  • Auto scion Bill Ford becomes phone friends with new president
  • Travel ban hit home at company in America’s Muslim capital

Rattner: Proud of Ford for Speaking Out Against Trump

Few corporate chieftains seem to have cultivated President Donald Trump quite like Bill Ford.

It had been a rough start, with Trump blasting Ford Motor Co. for building cars in Mexico. But Bill Ford, the executive chairman, pushed ahead, determined to forge a relationship with the new president. When Ford canceled a new $1.6 billion plant in Mexico, winning Trump’s praise and suggesting his tough talk about jobs was working, the friendship seemed sealed. Trump now calls the 59-year-old Bill Ford “my friend,” and the two speak regularly by phone about taxes, currencies and trade.

But striking up a relationship with Trump, 70, can be a delicate dance. The relationship faced its latest test when Trump issued his executive order last Friday banning immigrants from seven mostly Muslim nations.

After a weekend of phone calls and e-mails between Ford and Chief Executive Officer Mark Fields, the two executives refused to lend the company’s support for a policy that many viewed as a Muslim ban, despite Trump’s insistence it was not. The company Bill Ford’s great-grandfather founded is based in Dearborn, Michigan, known as America’s Muslim capital, with about one third of its population of Arab descent. Many work for Ford.

‘Core Value’

“Respect for all people is a core value of Ford Motor Co., and we are proud of the rich diversity of our company here at home and around the world,” the company said in a statement attributed to Bill Ford and Fields, 56. “That is why we do not support this policy or any other that goes against our values as a company.”

So far, Trump hasn’t lashed out at Ford, as he had throughout his campaign, and it’s unclear if Ford’s statement will endanger its relationship with Trump. The president name-dropped Bill Ford and Fields during a forum with other CEOs at the White House on Friday, hinting his talks with the two executives suggest “a lot of jobs are going to be coming back into Ohio and Michigan and Pennsylvania and all of the places that really have been hurt so badly.”

Regardless, Ford’s disagreement with a president with whom it’s also trying to curry favor highlights the difficulty dealing with a volatile commander-in-chief with an itchy Twitter finger. Trump has castigated several American companies on social media, including Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin Corp. and General Motors Co.

Susan Krusel, a Ford spokeswoman, said, “Our decision to respond to the executive order was a straightforward one because it was a topic on the minds of our employees, and we wanted to communicate with them our position based on our company values.”

Two Visits

Ford has much at stake. It has gained invaluable access to the Oval Office. Fields was the only American CEO to have two White House visits in Trump’s first week on the job. By the end of last week, Fields had concluded Trump was “going to be very focused on driving policies that drive investment and job creation” he told Wall Street analysts Jan. 26. Fields said he wanted to continue to be “a trusted source for input” to the president.

“They do not risk retaliatory tweets or worse because they’ve been respectful of the White House,” said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean of Yale University’s School of management. “Ford and Fields were careful not to criticize the White House, but to fortify what their own enterprise stands for to reassure their employees, customers, shareholders and vendors.”

Trump Tower

Trump’s criticism during the campaign rankled Bill Ford and Fields because their company is not the largest producer of autos in Mexico -- it ranks fifth -- and it wasn’t shipping U.S. jobs there. It’s added 28,000 jobs at home since 2011 and has invested $12 billion in American plants.

By late last summer, Bill Ford had enough of Trump’s trash talk and wanted to set the record straight. The automotive scion and the billionaire developer met at Trump Tower in Manhattan to discuss the dispute.

Bill Ford laid out his company’s U.S. investments and explained it had been building cars in Mexico for more than 90 years. Trump was cordial and inquisitive and the two seemed to make peace.

It turned out Trump wasn’t done yet. At an investor meeting in September, Fields formally announced Ford’s plans to move all U.S. small-car production to Mexico. Trump immediately opened a new line of attack: “It’s a disgrace,” he told the New York Economic Club a day later. “It’s disgraceful that our politicians allow them to get away with it.”

The blow back irritated Bill Ford, who thought he had resolved the issue at the Trump Tower summit.

Good News

“We are everything that he should be celebrating about this country,” a frustrated Ford told reporters in late September. “The investments we’re making in the U.S. are enormous. But he knows all that. I can’t control what he says.”

Bill Ford didn’t give up on the relationship. Shortly after the surprise election, he called Trump to offer congratulations. Days later, Ford called again with good news -- the company was canceling plans to move production of a Lincoln sport utility vehicle from Kentucky to Mexico.

Trump immediately tweeted the news before Ford had a chance to tell its local union officials in Kentucky. Trump, characteristically, took credit and overstated that the move would save an entire factory in Kentucky. Ford had no plans to close the plant, where it mostly builds the Escape SUV, which had record U.S. sales last year.

Regular Dialogue

The earlier exchanges opened a regular dialogue. Trump would call often to bounce his positions off Ford, who would quickly give his opinion before Trump would rapidly ring off.

“It was almost like speaking in sound bites,” Ford joked to reporters at a Detroit auto show dinner last month. “I always knew it was him calling because caller ID would say the number is blocked or, sometimes, it said ‘Trump Tower.”’

Those staccato sessions may have had some influence on Trump’s policies and priorities. The two men shared a disdain for the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, in part because it lacked sufficient curbs on currency manipulation. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the TPP in one of his first acts as president.

The two also discussed fuel economy regulations and corporate taxes.

The relationship grew so close, Trump said in December that Ford had again let him know more about the company’s future plans in advance.

Pull the Plug

“Ford’s made a promise to me,” Trump told a cheering crowd during a Dec. 9 stop on his post-election victory tour in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “Hopefully at the beginning of the year, they’re going to honor that promise about something they’re going to do that’s very big. And they’re going to do it in Michigan, not in Mexico. And it’s going to be great.”

Early the morning of Jan. 3, Bill Ford called Trump to let him know the company would pull the plug on the under-construction factory in Mexico that the then-president-elect had vilified. Instead, Ford said it will invest $700 million in a plant south of Detroit.

Trump responded a day later by tweeting: “Thank you to Ford for scrapping a new plant in Mexico and creating 700 new jobs in the U.S. This is just the beginning.”

A week later, Bill Ford was still basking in the glow of praise from the leader of the free world.

“I’m very hopeful,” Ford said in an interview at the Detroit auto show, “that on some of his policies that we’re going to be very supportive.”

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