Ford, Lift Up Your Weary Head

Discussion in 'Stocks' started by ByLoSellHi, Jan 4, 2007.

  1. Ford, Lift Up Your Weary Head

    Published: January 5, 2007

    DEARBORN, Mich., Jan. 4 — For a half-century, the blue oval logo atop Ford Motor’s headquarters has served as a kind of beacon for the American automobile industry, a signpost for local motorists on area highways and a guidepost for pilots landing at Detroit’s airport nearby.

    But lately, blue is the only word for the malaise surrounding Ford, which is rapidly seeing its position in the industry and in its hometown eroded by its failure to combat foreign competition.

    This year, Ford expects to permanently lose its grip on second place in the American market to Toyota, which passed it twice in monthly sales in the last six months, including December. As many as half its blue- and white-collar employees have decided to take voluntary buyouts from a company where jobs were long seen as lifetime guarantees.

    Ron Cimino, 44, used to regret not landing a job at Ford, where his father worked for 52 years. Turned down in 1984 because he lacked a master’s degree, Mr. Cimino of Dearborn wound up starting his own import-export business.

    “I’m glad I didn’t end up working at Ford,” he said. “I never thought I’d say that.”

    To be sure, General Motors and Chrysler have their own problems that are weighing on this city. Their headquarters are here, too, as are some of their car plants, and thousands of their employees have their own worries as each company struggles financially.

    But Ford’s troubles, arguably, are felt more acutely here. After all, G.M. placed a good bulk of its manufacturing 60 miles north, in Flint, Mich., and once had factories from Massachusetts to California as well as the Midwest. Chrysler, though still a big local employer, has had German owners for nearly a decade.

    Ford, by contrast, is woven more into the fabric of Detroit, with the Ford name on office buildings, museums, high schools and highways, as well as the football stadium, Ford Field, which opened downtown in 2002.

    Now, as the annual Detroit auto show prepares to open to the media this weekend, much of this city’s bedrock is unexpectedly at risk. In November, Ford disclosed it had pledged nearly all its assets, including the trademark on its 100-year-old logo, as collateral against $25 billion in loans needed to fund its restructuring.

    Ford has generated a particular sense of sympathy, bewilderment and fear here that its crosstown rivals have not. There is sympathy, analysts say, because more of a human element is involved, namely the Ford family; puzzlement because Ford seemed to be the one Detroit auto company that had an answer for Japanese competition in the 1980s and 1990s with its profitable sport utility vehicles; and fear that if a once-powerful company like Ford could falter, no one in Detroit may be safe.

    The sentiment is readily voiced in places like Miller’s Bar, where the red leather barstools and colored Christmas lights evoke the watering hole in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” It has been a Dearborn gathering spot since 1941.

    “Dearborn,” said the owner, Mark Miller, “is Ford.”

    Judy Dolan, a secretary for the Detroit Building Trades Council, said during an interview at her home, “I feel horrible about the situation they’re in.” She drives only Ford vehicles in support of her hometown company.

    Concern over Ford’s future bubbled up late last month in conversation at the holiday cocktail parties held by the Detroit and foreign car companies and their parts suppliers.

    Given the attention to Ford’s situation, the company’s new chief executive, Alan R. Mulally, who arrived in September from the Boeing Company, is already recognized wherever he goes.

    Mr. Mulally said in an interview that he was recently lost in a local supermarket when another shopper came up to him.

    “Oh, Mr. Mulally, we’re so glad you’re here,” he recalled her saying, before she helped him find shampoo.

    His predecessor was William Clay Ford Jr., who became the face of the company in television ads over the last four years as he struggled to fix Ford’s problems (he remains chairman).

    The family is the reason many company employees past and present refer to the automaker as Ford’s. It is not a grammatical error, as visitors here might assume, but a nod to the fact that it is a company built by the original Henry and all the Fords that followed him.

    “The Fords have a relationship with the American people,” said James P. Womack, the author and expert in manufacturing efficiency who advised Mr. Mulally at Boeing.

    They include Kevin Boyle’s retired father, also named Kevin, who immigrated to Dearborn from Ireland in the 1950s, drawn by the chance to work for a company founded by the most famous man in the auto business.

    “People came to Detroit with an intense connection with that name, and then their lives became tied up with that name,” said Mr. Boyle, a professor of history at Ohio State who has written extensively about the automobile industry. “It was a badge of honor to work for Ford.”

    Numerous families here boast multiple generations of Ford employees, some who worked on the assembly line, others — fathers and sons, mothers and daughters — who toiled in company offices. “I started there when I was 19, and my whole family worked there,” said Karen Kenniburg, who manages the vehicles driven by Ford executives.

    The Fords, for their part, have given back, not just in jobs but also in charities. Guests at a Nissan holiday party last month at the New Detroit Science Center drank wine and munched crab cakes beneath a wall of donors dotted with names of various Fords. The same was true for Honda, whose event took place in an atrium outside Orchestra Hall.

    That seeming omnipresence, however, makes the departures from Ford more poignant. Last month, more than 30,000 blue-collar workers accepted deals to give up their jobs.

    About half were ready to retire, but the rest were workers who did not have enough seniority to begin drawing pensions. They accepted payments of up to $140,000 apiece to leave.

    Ford’s white-collar employees are not exempt. The company has already cut 4,000 managers, and 10,000 more are set to go by spring. Last month, one of every three salaried employees was called in by their boss to be told Ford was giving them the opportunity for a buyout. If they did not accept, their jobs might not be safe, some were told.

    Altogether, more than 45,000 people, or half the number employed by the company at the beginning of the year, will not be working at Ford in 2007.

    That is likely to hurt business at Miller’s Bar, where 60 percent of the patrons work for Ford, and 18 of 25 cars in the parking lot on a recent afternoon bore Ford logos.

    Others will be affected, as well. At a Starbucks outlet on Michigan Avenue, a mile away from Ford’s headquarters, and once a hangout for Mr. Ford, one customer, Shelley Boda, 32, said she was unable to land a job at the company, where her father, grandfather and numerous relatives worked.

    Instead, she chose the health care field, now less of a safe haven than she had hoped. With Ford cutting so many jobs, and the rich benefits that went with them, “there won’t be anyone here who can afford health care,” she said.

    Professor Boyle said Ford employees and the community were now realizing that what they thought was a “safe bet” was not.

    “The funny thing is, people didn’t see it as a bet,” he said. “You would have parents who worked the line and have enough to send kids to college. They would go off and get engineering degrees, marketing degrees and work for the companies.

    “That has crumbled. There are few things more terrifying than that.”

    And yet, many still believe in the power of the Fords themselves to save their company. Ms. Kenniburg said they gave Ford an advantage over G.M. and Chrysler as they devise a comeback plan.

    “The Ford family,” she said, “they’re going to do everything in their power to keep this company going.”