Detroit Lions Undefeated: Ford Motor Chairman Bill Ford Jr.'s Next Big Accomplishment?

OPINION

   on October 03 2011 12:17 PM
Ford Motor Chairman Bill Ford Jr.
Ford Motor Chairman Bill Ford Jr. got the automaker founded by his great-grandfather, Henry Ford, back on track. Now his family's football team, the Detroit Lions, is off to a 4-0 start. Reuters

The Detroit Lions are undefeated. And it's already October. The team had a big 34-30 win on the road at Dallas Sunday after it had appeared early in the game that it was back to the business of old for the Lions.

But there's a new day in Detroit. In the end, the Lions showed that a new era is emerging for the franchise. It's not just talk of some day -- it's happening now. And nobody will be happier if the trend continues than Ford Motor Co. chairman Bill Ford Jr.

His family owns the Lions, and he's involved in the team's operations, though not on a daily basis. He's wanted few things more than seeing the Lions win on the field, and he's bound-and-determined that it happens.

When I got to know Bill Ford Jr. years ago, the Lions were mired in a years-long slump. He was chairman and CEO of Ford at the time, the company founded by Henry Ford, his great-grandfather, and that company was struggling as well. He was fighting with everything he had to change the trend, but it was a process.

We know what happened with Ford Motor -- the company is winning, and winning big. It's one of the greatest American business turnarounds we've ever seen.

Still, Bill Ford Jr. often gets an unfair rap for his leadership abilities. Ford CEO Alan Mulally saved the company, they say.

And that's true. But it took the leadership of Bill Ford Jr. to keep the company alive until he could find and hire the right leader, and it took the leadership of Ford to know that Mulally, from Boeing, was a perfect fit for the Dearborn, Michigan-based automaker.

Mulally will tell anybody that fact, and he often has. He understands that it perhaps couldn't have been done without Ford.

Ford is now earning big profits for shareholders, reducing its debt, and gaining market share while avoiding bankruptcy and without taking government TARP money. In business lore, that's about like winning back-to-back-to-back Super Bowls considering where the company had to fight back from.

In writing the only book on Bill Ford Jr. eight years ago, I got to know the man, his leadership characteristics and vision. In the years since, I've told anyone who will listen that he's a subtle powerhouse of sorts. Ford likes to keep a lower profile, and thus his leadership often goes unnoticed beyond where it occurs. But he's not shy to speak his mind, to take big-but-calculated risks, or demand that it be done right.

He's also smart. Understand that Ford was talking about the need for environmentally-friendly cars back in the 1990s -- while the rest of Detroit snickered, suggesting maybe he had a screw loose. Turns out, he was a bit ahead of his time, and right on the mark.

Everybody in Detroit is singing that tune now, a decade later.

But one thing I learned from Ford is that he has hated the Lions' losing over the years as much as any Detroit fan. And that's saying a lot. While writing the book and spending time in the Detroit area, I was frequently told by residents, Tell (Ford) we want the Lions to win.

I heard this over, and over. And my response was always the same: He already knows that, and he probably feels stronger about it than you.

Truth be told, Ford has tried to downplay how much the team's losing has bothered him over the years. Publicly, he's tried to keep the focus on the company.

The Lions have to deal with a smaller-market budget than big-market New York teams,or than Jerry Jones' Dallas Cowboys, and others. But there was the Matt Millen general manager experience, for instance. Millen was given the tools, and support, but he just couldn't get the job done.

That one cost more than a few years of progress.

But you win some, you lose some. For the Lions, however, it's mostly been losses in recent years. Read a selection from a Forbes story published in September titled Forbes 400 Sports Team Owners With Best Records.

Bill Ford Jr. wasn't on the list.

Thirty-three billionaires on the 2011 Forbes 400 list own a major U.S. sports franchise in baseball, basketball, hockey, or football, wrote Brian Solomon, at Forbes. Still, money can't buy championships. Some owners, like Bob McNair of the Houston Texans, William Ford Jr. of the Detroit Lions, and Ted Lerner of the Washington Nationals have had horrible tenures. Each of those teams has a disgraceful win-loss percentage of under 42 percent since they were purchased.

You get the picture. But nobody is bothered more by that fact than Ford, I can assure you. He's a competitor who loves sports, and Detroit. He's a hockey fan, and a football fan. And he wants to see championships in the Motor City.

It's still early in the NFL season, of course. The Lions' 4-0 start in October could turn to dust by late December. But winning has to start somewhere. That's the way it happened at Ford Motor, the doubters being brushed away with each and every mounting success.

At this point, Ford Motor has proven it's a winner. It's isn't always easy, and never will be. But Ford is a winner. And so too maybe, are the Detroit Lions. It's clear if the undefeated start isn't a fluke. You don't go 4-0 in the NFL and have a come-from-behind win in Dallas without being good.

So while there are many games left to be played this season, the foundation for a winner is there.

Detroit fans are ecstatic, understandly. And so is Ford Motor chairman Bill Ford Jr., understandably.

 

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