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Needed: A Braver Soul

A review of CEO Bill Ford’s performance at the annual shareholders meeting.

Bill Ford Jr. didn’t lose his grip until he met the guy whose wife’s legs didn’t fit anymore. At this year’s annual meeting of Ford Motor Co. stockholders, CEO Ford parried a trio of environmentalists. He was gracious to the nuns. He didn’t cut off the inventor with a revolutionary headlight in his coat pocket. (“I’d like to take it out now. Would you like to see it?”) Then Ronald Avedesian, of Northville, Michigan, came to the microphone. “I’ve owned the [Lincoln] Continental ever since it came out,” said Avedesian. “And this year, you canceled it. I had to go buy a Jaguar.” “Well,” Ford broke in, “that’s not the worst of all possible worlds, Mr. Avedesian. . . .” (Jaguar is now owned by Ford Motor.) “But the only thing is,” Avedesian continued, “my wife can’t cross her legs in that Jaguar. And in the Continental, she could. That’s all I have to say.” Amid a cascade of applause, Ford put his face in his hands. “A braver soul at this table,” he said, “might want to respond to that.”

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Annual meetings are, in any case, events to be endured. But this gathering came at an especially touchy point in the life of Bill Ford and of Ford Motor. It was the company’s 100th anniversary, and the meeting capped five days of celebrations, allowing Ford to revel in its history. But the CEO also had to acknowledge the present struggle: Last year, the automaker lost $142 on every car it sold.

Onstage, Ford conveyed youth, charm, and good humor. He knows how to wield a rhetorical flourish. He told stockholders, “I don’t think there’s a company in the world that has had a greater impact on people’s lives than Ford” — and he’s got a decent case. But that’s the point. Ford Motor suffers from the comparison to its own heritage: the Mustang, the Thunderbird. Today, does anyone thrill to a Focus?

What was missing from Ford’s performance was what’s missing from his company: passion, audacity, inventiveness. He comes across as the good-natured caretaker of his family’s legacy — and Ford Motor seems the caretaker of its corporate past. You can sense the ennui in its new slogan: “If you haven’t looked at a Ford lately — look again.”

That’s it? That’s all the enthusiasm Ford Motor can muster for its own cars? Model Ts still on the road get better mileage than the average Ford made today.

Yet when those three environmentalists held Bill Ford to polite account, the “green CEO” invoked “market realities” and insisted on patience. It’s hard to sell consumers on fuel economy, he said, when “gasoline is cheaper than bottled water.”

Hard to believe Henry Ford would have found that much of a challenge. He had to persuade Americans to buy cars in a country where there were no roads.

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