Family Values


Today's New York Times has a tribute to the steadfastness of the Ford clan in the crisis of the American auto industry, despite the loss of more than 90 percent of the market price of their stake in the company:

The Fords have had their tense times, most recently in 2007 when a few family members tried -- unsuccessfully -- to hire a Wall Street firm to advise the family on possible exit strategies.

But as they have done for decades after their meeting last January, the Fords rallied behind the family's appointed leader: William C. Ford Jr., a great-grandson of the founder and chairman since 1999.

General Motors, once acclaimed as the model of the modern multidivisional corporation and the bête noire of corporate critics -- its hamfisted tactics in response to Ralph Nader's criticisms of the Corvair's design confirmed their worst expectations -- is a humbled ward of the state. Chrysler has merged with Fiat. But in Ford's case, family control made decisions possible that averted such outcomes.

My friend the historian of technology Howard Segal was already exploring the connections between Henry Ford and his descendant in a syndicated essay several years ago. Ford became notorious for violent union-busting and fringe politics, but Segal points to a progressive side often neglected now, but a positive influence for his successors:

Along with decentralization, Bill has expanded the company's outsourcing that began with the village industries. As a 1938 Life magazine article about the River Rouge Plant revealed, "Ford still buys parts and materials from 6,000 independent plants throughout the nation." Bill has vastly increased that number.

But outsourcing requires reliable inventory controls, and Bill has greatly improved Ford Motor Company's inventory policies without falling into the trap created by his ousted predecessor, Jacques Nasser, for whom impersonal computerized systems were panaceas. Bill has built on Henry's legacy, as detailed in Ford and Samuel Crowther's "Today and Tomorrow" (1926).

Segal has shown in his book Recasting the Machine Age that Ford's "village industries" were no mere exercise in nostalgia or ploy against the United Auto Workers, but initiatives to combine the best of old (recycled, water-powered mills) and new (up-to-date machinery), reducing environmental impact. The Fords have also built on this side of Henry's thinking.

The Times article concludes that

Ford family members said they could not envision any situation that would cause them to sell out. "If this were just a financial investment, the family probably would have been out of it years ago," Bill Ford said. "This is very much an emotional commitment."

And that ending, of course has a subtext for the Times itself. The Sulzbergers' situation is not so different from the Fords'. This may be the decisive stand of noblesse oblige.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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