Ford Motor Chairman Bill Ford opened his company’s meeting of journalists and bloggers last night with an inspirational talk about Ford’s evolution in recent years from a stodgy rust belt giant to a 21st century technology company. In an interview with David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect, Henry Ford’s great-grandson talked about his journey as he pushed Ford to embed sustainability within the company’s entire operations.
What is fascinating is how this family scion is taking his family’s company back to its roots. When Henry Ford first dabbled in automobiles, his earliest models ran on diesel derived from peanut oil. Soybean-based plastic parts could be found in Ford automobiles during the 1930s, and at one point, Ford Motor’s founder even pounded a bumper made out of a soybean-based resin with a sledgehammer to prove its resilience.
Like other automakers, Ford drifted away from plant-derived fuels and materials, but now the company is embracing everything from soy-based foam to fabrics made out of recycled plastic bottles. The result is a renewed company that is not just an automobile manufacturer: Ford Motor is a technology, lifestyle and mobility company. And that lifestyle, dependent on mobility, includes sustainability at its core. So what happened?
Bill Ford talked about his first days with the company during the late 1980s when “environmentalism” simply was not discussed at Ford’s headquarters in Dearborn. He realized that he did not want his company or industry to become like the tobacco companies, leaving him to have to apologize for what they did. He eventually become the first industrialist to speak at a Greenpeace conference in 2000, and noted that he was not sure who was freaked out more: him or the Greenpeace organizers.
The result has been a company that has made huge improvements on the environmental stewardship front. The company has slashed its consumption of energy and water, and sharply cut back on waste - as Bill Ford mentioned, now 85 percent of a Ford vehicle is recyclable. Its factories are safer, the cars and trucks they are churning out are far more efficiently and its employees are thriving–Ford estimated that 95 percent of the company’s moves towards sustainability came from Ford Motor’s employees.
But as Ford reminded the audience at Ford Field, if the purpose of a company is to make people’s lives better, than it has got to make their lives easier and offer more options to help them move as urbanization rapidly increases. The idea of two cars in every garage is not just sustainable in the long run, so Ford is working with such shared car providers as Zipcar and established a “BluePrint for Mobility” to alleviate gridlock through the use of smarter and autonomous technologies. Ideas like Ford’s Traffic Jam Assist software that once seemed dreamy are now close to a reality. And it is important that these new technologies scale because a society plagued by gridlock will only fail. Hence mobility is not just about convenience, but in Ford’s words, is becoming a human right.
Automobile companies were set in their ways for decades, and their refusal to change with the times almost led to their death kneel a few years ago. But now Detroit is roaring back with Ford Motor leading the way. Like Nike, Microsoft and Marks and Spencer, Ford Motor is turning the idea of what it means to be a more sustainable business on its head. The results, quite simply, are exciting to watch.
Full disclosure: Ford Motor Co. covered Leon Kaye’s expenses to travel to Michigan.