Ramblings for May 22, 2000

May 22, 2000

Ford’s inner SUV turmoil

Ford has a difficult time projecting an image as a caring, conscientious company. Their most popular products are large trucks that seem aimed at allowing the buyers to look in their mirror and see urban cowboys looking back. (No wonder that recent products have been introduced at ranches, haciendas and rodeos.)

Too often Ford has been a public whipping boy, with environmentalists, union activists, disappointed shareholders and disgruntled consumers advancing their agendas at Ford expense. Far too often this criticism has been one sided with the media too willing to jump on the band wagon without checking facts carefully or seeking balanced opinions. Yet there are few companies that have been more dedicated toward elevating the level of the working class, or supporting idealistic initiatives that enhance society in general.

Henry Ford saw the auto as a means to bring prosperity to workers, both by paying high wages and keeping the Model T and A price low enough to fit the wallet of the average family. The immense wealth the family devolved from this enterprise has often been channeled to public's benefit, following the lead of the Carnegies and Rockefellers and setting the model for today's Turner and Gates donations.

Now that William Clay Ford has assumed the chairmanship, he is recommitting the company to these goals, but true to past habits, the media is concentrating on the less appealing side. Knowing that the public has fallen in love with large trucks and that these represent threats to the environment and highway safety, Ford commissioned and published a SUV Case Study in their 1999 Corporate Citizenship Report. The corporate spokespeople state that the study "is an example of our desire to be as open and transparent as possible in our dealings with the public and on issues of importance to society at large."

It goes on to state: "Customers demand SUVs for good reasons. They are versatile, have lots of utility and fit people's lifestyles. Our commitment is to provide these products with the utmost attention to our environmental and societal responsibilities. Ford has been leading the way in safety and environmental improvements to SUVs. We are consistently going beyond the regulatory requirements and often doing it years before mandated by any government."

Too many pundits have focused on the dichotomy of being focused on improving society while making much of their profit on vehicles unfriendly to the public as a whole. Others claim the report is an indication of unrest among corporate executives. Where are those critics when the Sara Lee truck shows up to further tempt us to abandon our fight against midriff bulges?

Despite the recent furor over SUVs, Ford believes his company will come out on top of the arguments. "We will continue to focus on rewarding our shareholders by satisfying our customers," he continues in the report. "Customers want to do business with companies that truly care about them and their communities. Companies that not only are economically successful, but also socially and environmentally responsible. Whether or not a company is perceived as being socially responsible is increasingly affecting purchase and investment decisions. We see that as being a competitive advantage for Ford, because it's part of our heritage. It's definitely a strength we're going to build on."

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