The following column originally appeared on this website on March 13, 2015. I thought it should be rebooted due to the Detroit Lions 0-5 start. – Doug Warren
By the beginning of 1946, it was estimated that Ford Motor Company was losing $10 million a month. What had once been the biggest and most profitable corporation in the world, was on the verge of bankruptcy.
The reality was that the company had been in decline for nearly two decades.
By 1943, Henry Ford, the company’s founder, the inventor of the Model T, the perfector of the assembly line, the lynchpin behind the “$5 work day,” had become a shell of himself. Paranoia about labor unions, the federal government, and everything else it seemed, had fueled his growing senility. When his son, Edsel, tired of fighting his entire life to win his father’s approval, died of cancer in May, Henry Ford was primed to put the final nail in his empire’s coffin.
If Edsel Ford was the son Henry Ford never wanted, Harry Bennett was the son he wished he’d always had. He was the elder Ford’s most trusted aide – and able manipulator – for nearly two decades. Bennett was a Navy veteran and a former boxer whose fists and ruthlessnees were his greatest assets. As the head of the Ford Service Department, his job was to oversee the company’s union-busting, survelliance and security forces. Bennett was the perfect thug for the job. At the dawn of World War II and with his surrogate-father desending into maddness, Bennett consolidated his power and strenghened his personal fortune – all on the company dime.
With war raging abroad and Ford Motor Company factories essential to the Arsenal of Democracy and the goal of ultimate victory, the U.S. government was contemplating taking over the company to save it from Henry Ford and Harry Bennett.
However, Ford’s wife, Clara Bryant Ford, and his now widowed daugher-in-law, Eleanor Clay Ford, had other plans. The duo had arranged for Edsel and Eleanor’s eldest child, Henry Ford II (aka Hank The Deuce), to get an early discharge from the Navy. He arrived home in July. With Edsel deceased, his mother Eleanor now controled a large amount of Ford stock and the power that came with it. She told her father-in-law, with Clara in full support, that it was time for him to hand over control of the company to his Grandson. Reluctantly, Grandpa did. Henry Ford II, just 28-years old, was named President of Ford Motor Company in September 1945.Embed from Getty Images
Above Photo (left to right): Henry Ford II, Henry Ford and Edsel Ford in 1939
Aside from crushing unions and instilling fear in the Ford workforce, Harry Bennett also excelled at bullying Edsel, all to the elder Ford’s delight. Young Henry had witnessed the tormenting of his father thoughout his childhood. Eleanor blamed Bennett for Edsel’s premature death at the age of 49. When Hank The Deuce took over the company, one of his first moves was to fire Bennett. By 1950, the last remants of Bennett’s henchman were all dispatched from the Ford payroll.
The days of cronyism at Ford Motor Company were over.
It’s time for the same thing to happen with the Detroit Lions Football Organization.
Edsel and Eleanor Ford’s youngest child (and Hank’s brother), William Clay Ford, was stubborn just like his Grandfather. He always did things his way. The unsought opinions of friends and family – let alone the critics – be damned. In the case of Harry Bennett, Henry Ford was stubborn to a fault. It would be a trait that his grandson William would also carry with him all his life.
While his brother Henry managed Ford Motor Company, the domain of William Clay Ford Sr. (as he later became known as) was the Detroit Lions. From the moment he purchased sole control of the team in January 1964, until his death in March of 2014, he did things his way. And when it came to the men he hired to run his football team, from Russ Thomas, to Chuck Schmidt, to Matt Millen, he remained loyal to a fault. The critics, as well as the lack of success, be damned.
However, William Clay Ford’s son, better known today as Bill Ford Jr. might be a different story.
Bill Ford Jr., is the youngest child and only son of William Clay Ford and Martha (Firestone) Ford. At the time of his father’s death, Crain’s Detroit described Ford Jr. as having “been the Lions’ vice chairman since February 1995. He sits on several of the NFL’s most powerful committees and acted as the day-to-day chief executive of the team in his father’s place.”
Upon the death of her husband, Martha Ford became majority owner of the Lions. But there is little question that her son still wields plenty of influence in Allen Park.
And unlike his father, Bill Ford Jr. has proven to be a man who is not only less stubborn, but more willing to admit mistakes, make corrections, and even ask for help when warranted.
In short, he is more like his Uncle Hank.
And this is where Detroit Lions fans should hang any remaining hope that the fortunes of this franchise, and its 57-year championship drought, may come to an end sooner rather than later.
History shows it was Bill Ford Jr. who first encouraged his father to hire Matt Millen as General Manager back in January of 1998. Lions’ then-head coach, Bobby Ross, had just finished his second season with a dissapointing 5-11 mark. At his son’s urging, Ford Sr. had begun secret negotiations with Millen. When word leaked to Ross, who at the time had final say over personel decisions, he confronted the elder Ford, threatening to resign if Millen was hired.
Ford Sr., always loyal to a fault, gave Ross another chance. Seven months later, on July 29, 1999, Barry Sanders faxed his retirement letter to the Wichita Eagle and hopped a jet to London. On November 6, 2000, Bobby Ross resigned as Lions’ head coach on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
The Fords then turned to Matt Millen a second time, and swiftly entered the darkest period in franchise history.
Fast foward to September 22, 2008 when Bill Ford Jr. was questioned about the then 0-3 Lions outside a meeting of the Detroit Economic Club.
“I think the fans deserve better and if it were in my authority, which it’s not, I’d make some significant changes,” Ford said.
It was a bold statement, especially considering how adamant his father was about Millen’s job security. However, two days later, William Clay Ford Sr. fired Matt Millen.
Bill Ford Jr., who pushed his father to hire Millen, not once, but twice, was also willing admit his mistake, in a public forum. That admission prompted his father to make a change.
It was not the first time Ford Jr. had shown that ability.
From 1999 to 2006, Bill Ford Jr. was CEO (and later President) of Ford Motor Company, the same positions his uncle had once held. And just like Uncle Hank 54 years earlier, Bill Ford Jr. took the reigns at a time of great unrest inside the company his Great-Grandfather had founded.
And just like Hank The Deuce, he would prove to be up to the task, as International Business Times reporter, David Magee, wrote in a 2011 article:
It was clear to me from the start that Bill Ford would not remain the company’s CEO for long. That’s what made him a good leader. He knew a strong operations CEO was needed, and he was determined to find one. The great-grandson of Henry Ford, he envisioned being chairman, not CEO, a sort of broad-vision steward of the company, and his family’s, legacy. . . . I also knew he would not fear hiring someone from outside of Detroit’s hubris-laced automotive executive ranks to lead Ford. So it appeared to me he had a good chance of saving Ford.
In September, 2006, just as Magee predicted, Bill Ford Jr, stepped down as CEO and President.
“The business model that sustained us for decades is no longer sufficient to sustain profitability,” Ford Jr. stated in a memo to employees prior to his announcement.
Later, during a televised press conference, he further explained his decision.
“I went to [Ford’s] board and told them I had too much to do,” he said. “In this environment, with a relatively young management team facing tough times, I felt that we could benefit from leadership of someone who had been through tough times successfully.”Embed from Getty Images
Above photo (left to right): Bill Ford Jr. and Alan Mulally
That “someone” was a Detroit outsider, senior Boeing executive Alan Mulally. It was a bold move, not only because Ford Jr. was stepping aside for someone not named Ford, but for handing the reigns of the family business to a person outside of the automobile industry.
History shows that Mulally was the right choice.
Mulally shed weaker brands, such as Volvo, Land Rover and Mazda. The biggest gamble he took was mortgaging many of the company’s assets, from its productive factories to its iconic blue oval logo. . . . The borrowing was designed to give the company enough cash to revitalize the lineup of its core Ford brand. But it also allowed Ford to ride out the recession and avoid the bankruptcy and subsequent bailout that wiped out shareholders at General Motor () and Chrysler Group in 2009.
History shows that Bill Ford Jr. is a leader. A leader who is not afraid to take a chance and make the unconventional hire.
In the case of Matt Millen, it was a disaster. In the case of Alan Mulally, it was a master stroke.
History also shows that Bill Ford Jr., unlike his father, is willing to, if need be, replace people – even if that person is himself.
For Detroit Lions GM, Martin Mayhew, and President, Tom Lewand, the next nine months must produce many more master strokes than mistakes.
As I wrote on this site on Tuesday, the Detroit Lions annual chase of their tails must end. There can be no more drafts like 2010 and 2011, as no players from those classes remain on the roster. This year’s draft must instead resemble the 2013 draft, when they netted four starters (Ziggy Anash, Darius Slay, Larry Warford, Sam Martin) and three key reserves (Devin Taylor, Corey Fuller, Theo Riddick).
In addition to the draft, Mayhew and Lewand must spend more wisely when locking up current stars to longterm deals. Those efforts must start with Anash, tackle Riley Reiff and outside linebacker DeAndre Levy.
There can be no more golden parachutes like those served up to Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford.
Likewise, there can be no more exits like Ndamukong Suh and Barry Sanders.
The Green Bay Packers have made draft success and the securing of their young talent an annual event. If the Detroit Lions want to have any hope of challenging the Packers, let alone end their 57-year championship drought, they need to develop the same habits.
And if those habits fail to develop with Mayhew and Lewand, it will be up to Bill Ford Jr. to step in and find new leadership to make it happen.