Excerpt: Bill Jr. Is “Ford Tough”

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Book on Ford has moments, but is premature.

Ford Tough, by David Magee, John Wiley & Sons, 2004; $27.95

Like Bill Ford, Nasser was just starting his second month in Ford’s top position, on February 1, 1999, when the pieces for a rich and robust future appeared to all be in place. Nasser was out of the office and the country, traveling in Europe on Ford Motor Company business. Bill Ford was in his car, not far from World Headquarters, returning from lunch when the news came over the radio.

“There has been an explosion at Ford Rouge manufacturing facility. The full extent of damage is not known, but there are injuries.”

Ford looked out his car window toward the distant massive Rouge complex, which sits along the river from which it took its name and rises above the flat, treed landscape in the Dearborn area. He saw smoke billowing toward the sky.

The Rouge was the brainchild of Ford’s great-grandfather, Henry Ford, who dreamed of building a car from start to finish, raw material and all, in one location. Henry Ford had the Rouge constructed in 1918 to accomplish just that. Raw materials entered, fully completed cars exited, and there was nothing like it anywhere else. The vertical integration process gave Ford Motor Company total self-sufficiency in owning, operating, and coordinating all the resources needed to build complete automobiles. The 1100-acre complex was for many years the world’s largest auto manufacturing facility employing 100,000 workers at its peak in the 1940s. But by 1999, the entire complex was showing its age. Just less than 10,000 employees worked at Ford’s six plants in operation at the time, and facilities were in need of renovation. Plans were already underway to replace the 78-year old powerhouse that energized the Rouge. The powerhouse was still capable of producing enough juice to light the entire city of Boston , but the aged facility was a throwback to the heyday of the massive complex.

Boiler control room 6 was the biggest of the seven control rooms on the third floor of the powerhouse with space to store coffee pots and snacks. Workers often congregated there to snack and chat during break times. Half a dozen men were gathered just before 1 p.m. on February 1. They had no idea that imminent spontaneous combustion would take some of their lives and change the course of the corporation.

Made with one-inch steel and standing 60 feet high, boiler 6 was heated by a furnace that consumed about 400,000 cubic feet of natural gas each hour. The firebox, in turn, heated its capacity of up to 28,000 gallons to a temperature as high as 530 degrees. The boiler was in shutdown mode for annual inspection just before 1 p.m. Four workers had blanked the flow, physically preventing gas from entering the boiler. After lunch, the men planned to blank the natural gas line. They had no idea gas was building up in the firebox inside the boiler while they took a break for lunch, becoming an accident in waiting. Something, maybe a small ember of coal dust, caused ignition, and in an instant the boiler exploded like a gigantic pipe bomb with a force felt blocks away, strong enough to split open, spewing heat and water in excess of 300 degrees Fahrenheit on nearby workers. Fire from the explosion shot across the room to other boilers, catching them on fire as well.

Like many employees at Ford Motor Company, Jim Vella had not spoken with Bill Ford before February 1, 1999. But as director of manufacturing public affairs, Vella took the company lead in crisis management in absence of Ford vice-president of public affairs Vaughn Koshkarian, who, like Nasser, was out of town on business when the Rouge explosion occurred. Koshkarian had a finance background but had been appointed by Nasser to lead the company’s public affairs, despite having no experience in the field. In his absence and in the need for an experienced professional in crisis, Vella stepped forward, speaking with the new company chairman on his mobile phone to brief him on the startling event.

“The accident is serious. There are injuries, maybe deaths. The site is unstable. We are in contact with authorities.”

Bill Ford Jr. drove to World Headquarters and was met in his 12th floor office by Vella and by Neil Golightly, who was in his first weeks as director of the chairman’s office, with duties that were part public affairs and part executive assistant for Bill Ford. Golightly remembers Ford being visibly concerned and distraught when he walked into the office and sat down for updated information on the accident. Details were still sketchy.

“Do you think I should go?” Ford asked.

Golightly was barely three weeks into his job and still getting to know and understand the man he worked for. The company’s CEO was out of the country, its head of public affairs was out of town. The chairman bore the company name and the Rouge was an unstable accident scene at a volatile, 78-year old powerhouse with the boilers fed by natural gas. Golightly followed his first gut reaction and advised Ford not to go.

“That’s ridiculous.” Ford said. “I’ve got to go.”

“Generals don’t go to the front lines.” Another company adviser told the chairman.

“Bust me down to private then.” Ford responded, “because I’m out of here.”
Ford went to the accident scene at the Rouge, taking Golightly along. When they arrived, heavy gray scale smoke was still escaping from windows of the powerhouse and a dozen ambulances line the streets around it. Water from the boilers and from the extinguishing effects flooded the streets, while coal, ash, and smoke filled the air. An emergency command center was set up in an adjacent building and Bill Ford went there first, talking to doctors, firemen, paramedics, and employees — searching from answers about how many might have been injured and what their conditions were.

The news was not good. One person was known to be dead. Nineteen others were severely injured, most with burns, and being transported to hospitals throughout the region. Ford worked to stay out of the way in the command center, letting emergency personnel do their jobs, but wanted to help and offer support because he felt like he needed to do something. Most people did not recognize him. But once they learned he was a Ford, bearing the DNA of the man who had founded the company and built the Rouge, they gravitated toward him and found stability in the difficult moment through his presence.

Ford stayed at the Rouge for almost two hours. When it became obvious there was nothing to do at the scene, he wanted to go to hospitals where injured employees had been taken. On the way out of the Rouge complex in his car, he passed a throng of media gathered and waiting for updated information on the accident. Realizing his initial thought of keeping the chairman away from the accident scene had been a mistake, Golightly advised Ford that stopping and speaking with reporters would be a good idea since thousands of employees at Ford Motor Co. plants throughout the country were watching live news broadcasts, concerned about the fortunes of fellow workers and deserving of first hand information.

A light rain was falling and smoke was still pouring from the powerhouse in the background when the cameras rolled, but the face of Bill Ford, showing visible emotion, said it all. Cameras zoomed in close as the company chairman spoke with no script, voice quivering. This was not a staged public relations event, but a moment of pure concern and sorrow.

“It’s awful,” Ford said. “Everyone who works for Ford is an extended member of the family. This is the worst day of my life.”

Ford drove to hospitals treating the injured and met with families filling waiting rooms. He gave them cash from his wallet and offered credit cards to buy food, hotel rooms, anything they might need. He returned the next day and the next as injured employees fought for their lives in intensive care units. Two families asked Ford to visit badly burned employees at bedside, and he obliged, witnessing and sharing the pain firsthand. Other family members of injured employees simply wanted to be near him, finding strength from his heritage and outward compassion.

The days and weeks that followed were long, and there was little good news. Six more Ford employees died, bringing the total deaths from the Rouge accident to seven. There was anger, some directed toward the company for using aging equipment at the Rouge, but Ford remained involved, assuring those around him it was “the right thing to do.”

Koshkarian, who has been head of Ford’s developing China operations before being handpicked by Nasser to lead the company’s 250-person PR staff, was away at public relations firm Burson Marsteller, taking a one-on-one course in public relations. Koshkarian did not call back to Dearborn to see if anything had happened during the workday until 5 p.m., hours after the explosion. In his absence, the crisis management lead at World Headquarters went to Vella, a native of Detroit who had worked in television news management for 14 years before joining Ford. Vella led the company’s response team, providing employees and news media with up-to-date information on rapidly changing details surrounding the Rouge accident.

In the tragic days that followed, Vella, at Bill Ford’s request, helped plan employee funerals. He, Bill Ford, Nasser, and other Ford executives went to each of the services, grieving with the families. After the seventh, they were exhausted, worn out from unexpected crisis and mental anguish of burying Ford employees. The Rouge explosion and ensuing weeks had been devastating for Ford Motor Company, its employees and its new chairman. It would be more than a year before the rest of corporate America would face a rude awakening from its blissful times, but Bill Ford and Ford Motor Company got their taste of disaster when the Rouge explosion rocked, rattled, and violently disrupted the destiny of leadership and corporate direction. The pall of death fell heavily over the satisfaction of prosperity in Dearborn . But in the face of tragedy, a new leader emerged.

“Bill earned the respect of a hell of a lot of people that day,” says Carl Reichardt.

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