Bill Ford: I was called an 'environmental wacko' when I joined Ford

Editor’s Note: This article originally published June 28, 2018.

CNN Business  — 

His parents bear the names Ford and Firestone and he says gasoline runs in his veins. But the decision to work at the company his great-grandfather Henry Ford founded was not one that came easily to Bill Ford, Jr.

An avid environmentalist, the executive chairman of one of America’s “Big Three” automakers says he felt anything but welcomed when he first joined Ford Motor Co. in the 1970s.

“I was just appalled at the mentality that existed throughout the company towards the environment and, frankly, towards anything outside of Detroit,” Ford tells CNN’s Poppy Harlow in the latest episode of Boss Files. “Ford was, the entire auto industry was, a very insular culture. And it really shocked me. And I decided to see if I could help change that. And in the early years, there was a lot of frustration.”

He recalls that even his own company asked him to stop hanging out with “environmental wackos” and told him to distance himself from “any known or suspected environmentalists.”

“I almost left, actually, a couple times to pursue my environmental passions, but I had friends from the environmental community say to me, ‘Look, if you can affect change internally you can do so much more than you ever could outside. So, if you can hang in there, do try to do it,’” says Ford.

Ford joined the company in 1979 as a product planning analyst. He subsequently held a variety of positions in manufacturing, sales, marketing and other departments before he joined Ford’s board of directors in 1988. In October 2001, he became chief executive officer – a role he held until September 2006 when he stepped down and became executive chairman.

Ford says his mission since day one has been to build a bridge between environmentalists and the business community. That has meant pushing the industry “to look much more broadly at society and trends, and to get on top of them early.”

In a 2011 TED Talk, Ford outlined his vision for reducing gridlock and limiting the impact of cars on the environment, including “smart roads” and more sustainable transportation. The company has since announced Ford Smart Mobility, a new division of the company aimed at designing, creating and investing in advances in connectivity, mobility, self-driving cars and other innovations.

“Autonomy is coming,” Ford says. The company has said it wants an autonomous vehicle on the market in 2021. It is also building a so-called “transportation cloud,” where cars and trucks will be connected to the infrastructure around them.

“Every piece of our business is changing. The ownership model is changing, the combustion model, the way a vehicle is propelled is changing, the way vehicles are going to be financed will change, on whose balance sheet they sit will change, and 3-D printing is coming, and that will change manufacturing,” Ford tells Harlow.

Ford says technology’s impact on the auto industry is a challenge for the company’s management team, but also an “amazing opportunity.”

“I think it’s the most interesting time that I’ve seen in my lifetime,” he says.

To showcase all of the changes taking place, the company has purchased the Michigan Central Station, a 105-year-old building that has sat neglected in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. The automaker is embarking on a four-year renovation of the old depot in order to transform it into an innovation hub for Ford’s vision of the future of transportation. The technology center will feature restaurants, shops, bars and cafes on the lower levels and offices on the floors above.

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Ford says he is “bullish” on the future of Detroit and is excited about the motor company’s role in reviving the iconic American city. “When we go recruit young people now - even five, six years ago, we’d have to sell them everything but Detroit about coming to work at Ford. Now Detroit is the magnet. There’s a buzz about Detroit nationally,” Ford says.

Despite his famous last name, Ford says he has no intentions of running for public office. Instead, he feels he can effect more change in America from his corner office.

“When I think now about, should I go run for an elected office versus staying and trying to make people’s lives better around the world by giving them access to jobs, by letting medical care and food move freely around cities, providing employment to hundreds of thousands of people around the world, and making their families lives better, to me, that is hugely important. And I can’t think of anything I’d rather do,” he says.