Elena Ford could have used her famous name to party like a socialite heiress, but instead she rose to become the first female family member to hold a senior position at the iconic American carmaker
Being an heiress can be a tough role to juggle: It gives you a platform, such as Abigail Disney’s recent testimony on Washington, DC’s Capitol Hill about workers’ rights and low pay, in which she was controversially lashing out at the fact that the entertainment giant her grandfather co-founded was paying its CEO a salary of $65m, while some of its theme park workers struggled to make ends meet.
It gives you access to easy fame, such as Paris Hilton, who is as busy as ever selling her namesake brand around the globe and in recent weeks expanded to launch a skincare range in South Korea and celebrated the success of her new dance single ‘My Best Friend’s Ass’.
Once you are in Ford, you are committed, you feel very committed once you are here
But it also brings scrutiny and ridicule, such as the backlash against Kim Kardashian’s announcement that she intends to leverage her social media infamy to emulate her father’s legal success in the infamous OJ Simpson trial and study law in her spare time, in the hope of getting justice for those falsely imprisoned.
All three have recently been elevated and lambasted in equal measure, with many reporters and social commentators questioning whether any of them would be given the media attention or opportunities they enjoy if they didn’t have a famous surname to open doors for them.
Elena Ford is an heiress but she’s very different from your Hiltons, your Disneys or, certainly, your Kardashians. Yes, she has a famous and immediately recognisable surname and yes, her colourful personal life has provided much tabloid fodder to the notorious American gossip columnists, but she isn’t just Ford by name, she’s Ford by nature.
She grew up sitting on the knee of her grandfather Henry Ford II, where he schooled her in the legacy behind the car brand founded in 1903 by Henry Ford Senior. She learned to drive in an F-100 pick-up – as her grandfather was insistent that she knew how to use the stick shift – and her first car was a Mustang, the legendary brand launched by her grandfather in the 1960s and still her favourite Ford model to date.
Right now, we’re open to all new technologies, but we are really staying with the human touch for the moment
The Ford Motor Company is still very much associated with the family that founded it in Detroit. While they own only less than 5 percent of the shares, they control 40 percent of the voting rights, giving them much leverage over its management. A handful of Ford family members are still working for the company – her cousin William Clay Ford Jr. has been executive chairman since 1999 – but Elena is the highest ranking female family member working for the company and her standing in the industry has seen her twice named on the Automotive News list of 100 Leading Women in the North American Auto Industry.
So, what was it like coming into the business with the weight of expectation as soon as people heard her surname? “One of the most important things was coming into Ford as a family member with outside experience. That was very important, I spent quite a bit of time at advertising and that was where I started.
“I wanted to make sure I had something I knew how to do when I came here. I had quite a bit of work experience, I’d started my own business, not a big business, but I knew how to run a business and having experience outside of education in the working world is very important before you enter Ford.
“Once you are in Ford, you are committed, you feel very committed once you are here,” she recalls. She joined the family business in 1995 after earning a bachelor’s degree in business from New York University.
“I guess one of the biggest things was getting experience in different parts of Ford Motor Company, especially in finance and product development. I ended up in Ford credit, it really was super important - all the areas I worked in.
It’s very important for us to have great government relations as we do business in countries all over the world
“I mean, I think, as a family member, you have to really engage and one of the things I really felt [ was important] was to have a mentor and I would find people within the company to help guide me through things.”
When asked if there are any drawbacks to having the same surname as the name over the roof, she is very clear: “Nothing”.
Although she has racked up nearly a quarter of a century with the company and she has seen it go through many ups and downs, particularly the global financial crisis over a decade ago, it is fair to say the automobile sector is going through a period of flux at the moment.
The United States, forever associated as a nation of car drivers, is changing. Ford – the country’s second biggest car manufacturer – and market leader General Motors, have both announced plans to cut back on the number of cars they produce, especially sedans and coupes, to concentrate on the much-more profitable production of sport utility vehicles and trucks.
“Given declining consumer demand and product profitability, the company will not invest in the next generations of traditional Ford sedans for North America. Over the next few years, the Ford car portfolio in North America will transition to two vehicles – the best-selling Mustang and the all-new Focus Active crossover coming out next year,” Ford said last year.
At the end of last year, the Ford’s stock price was at a nine-year low, its credit rating was one notch above junk and its sales numbers in the US had slipped below 2.5 million, down from a high of around 4 million in 2000.
“Well, I think, you know, we want to serve the customers the vehicles that they want... We know that the car market is declining. So, we’re here to serve the customers and the trends that they want,” Ford says when we list off the bad news coming from the sector.
“We have a whole new line up, mostly fashioned by the end of this year, and coming into 2020. And it’s a whole new variety of SUVs, the Explorer and the Escape and new vehicles to come in at the beginning of 2020,” she says confidently.
We are constantly benchmarking who are the best who can help us, inside and outside the automotive business
The company last month started implementing plans to lay off 10 percent of its global workforce, in a bid to cut costs by around $600m annually.
“To succeed in our competitive industry, and position Ford to win in a fast-changing future, we must reduce bureaucracy, empower managers, speed decision- making, focus on the most valuable work and cut costs,” Ford CEO Jim Hackett said in the email to staff.
The layoffs may be part of an $11bn restructuring programme Hackett is undertaking, but one of the people he is looking to help steer the company towards a brighter future is Elena Ford.
In 2012, she was asked to take charge of a new global unit within the company, the Dealer and Consumer Experience group. Here she was responsible for standardising the way dealerships interact with customers around the world. This proved to be a success and she was appointed as vice president, making her the first female family member to hold a leadership position within the company.
Her focus on improving things for customers saw her last year take on another new global role, Ford’s first ever Chief Customer Experience Officer. The role works in the customer service division as well as sales and marketing to aid customers throughout the entire ownership cycle of a vehicle. And improving customer satisfaction is something she believes will help put the iconic brand back in the fast lane towards recovery.
“You know customer experience is so important. And we’re a company that is frankly in the middle of the pack. And when you start concentrating on it and elevating and making it part of the daily conversation, people start paying attention to it and it becomes part of the discussion on a daily basis,” she says with a real sense of passion.
“We actually started talking about customer experience about three years ago and we said we want to be serious about [it]. We feel the customer experience is a way forward and a way we can win in the marketplace. We created the Customer Experience position and established the team to work with all business units across the world and it is a way of doing business now at Ford.
“And we’ve just started. So, we know we’re in the middle of the pack, so we want to be the best in class. You know, changing customers’ perceptions takes time and we know that we have benchmarked Delta, we’ve benchmarked Marriott, Apple, Google and other global brands… We’ve got time.”
Elena Ford was recently in the UAE as Ford’s local dealer partner, Al Tayer Motors, opened the world’s largest Lincoln showroom in March. While Ford reported that global net income fell 34 percent to $1.15bn during the first quarter of 2019, as revenue fell 4 percent to $40.3bn, in the Middle East, it is a different story.
To position Ford to win in a fast-changing future, we must reduce bureaucracy, empower managers, speed decision making, and focus on the most valuable work
Sales for Ford’s brands in the region are up and the Lincoln brand alone reported a 47 percent year-on-year increase in sales in the first quarter of 2019, with sales up 33 percent in the UAE, and a whopping 82 percent in Kuwait.
The company has a large footprint in the region, having operated here for 60 years, with more than 155 facilities directly employing more than 7,000 people.
While in the emirate, Ford reports that she had meetings with Emirates Airline to study how they operate customer service and what the Ford brand can learn from the Dubai carrier.
“They are leaders in customer experience. We are constantly benchmarking who are the best who can help us, inside and outside the automotive business,” she says of her meetings with Emirates.
While she has yet to mark a year in her role, with it only having been created in October last year, she has already begun to see some small seeds of success in the changes she has made to how the customer experience is managed.
“For instance, in our group, we have all the call centres around the world. We want to make them more seamless. We have something called ‘own the call’ and Lincoln has done a fabulous job where the customer doesn’t get handed off.
“When you call in, the person who takes the call stays with you. We are going to launch that in Houston, Texas and that will be the benchmark across the world to take much better care of customers. We know for a fact that is a huge success in retention and loyalty and in making sure the customers come back to Ford.”
Elena Ford is certainly renowned for her formidable approach and ability to find a solution to a problem. Over a decade ago, she wanted to park her 131-foot boat in a small marina in a rather fancy part of Detroit. She was told it wouldn’t fit but she didn’t take no for an answer and paid to have the harbour dredged so the hull of her yacht could fit. Weeks later, she sailed her beloved yacht – named Unity – into the marina, dwarfing the other craft nearby.
I guess she wouldn’t truly be an heiress without a juicy piece of gossip to regale, but this namesake is excited about something other than using her name to open doors; she wants to use her experience and platform to tackle customer service at a global level and make sure the company is still thriving for the next Ford generations to come.
“Well, I mean, experiences are the act of living through interactions. I feel like we’re building and we’re building a great foundation with each region. We have a roadmap and we have a way to measure it, so we are super excited. The dealers are with us and I can’t be more thrilled for this opportunity for Ford to make it part of our goals going forward.”
“I think at this point that is a little bit in the distance, but our work is all about the experience, what will the experience be for the customer at that point and how will they interact with the driverless car.
Ford is investing over $4bn in driverless technology development through to 2023. It is aiming to create a virtual driver system and is currently testing its self-driving vehicles in Miami, Washington, D.C. and Detroit.”
CEO Jim Hackett echoed Elena Ford’s sentiment when he said in April that the company was scaling back its plans: “We overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles,” he said.
“Right now, we’re open to all new technologies, but we are really staying with the human touch for the moment as we get our call centres back to operating where customers feel great about Ford. At that point we will look at enhanced technology.”
New forms of technology are certainly part of its plans. Ford is developing a new campus in Cookstown in Detroit, which it hopes will be open by 2022 and will see around 2,500 entrepreneurs and experts brainstorm the latest trends, technologies and innovations that will be the future of the transport and automotive industry.
“I think the electric vehicles market is going to grow and we are going to be very prepared for it. It is a market that is very prevalent obviously in California and the East Coast [of the US]. And we’re going to have a significant number of vehicles ready for customers as we go forward. We’re investing $11bn in electrified technology, including battery electric hybrid and partial hybrids. So, we are fully engaged, I guess I would say, in electrified technology.”
The company is going global with its electric car push, and this month launched its first electric SUV.
Last year, Ford announced that steel and aluminium tariffs imposed by the Trump administration had cost the company about $1bn in profits, while Ford also scrapped plans to sell a Chinese-made Ford Focus in the US because of the impact of trade war.
“Well, we’re always hoping that governments can work together. It’s very important for us to have great government relations as we do business in countries all over the world, that is very important to us.”
In terms of the 2020 election and Trump’s bid for a second term, she says:
“I mean I think that, you know, how the presidency plays out is really in the hands of the American people.” (At which point a PR representative jumps in and ends the discussion).For all the latest transport news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.