Time Turns Ford to Fluff, But the Story’s Pretty Good

It's a tough time for automakers. Ditto for newsweeklies. But when a reporter from Time sat down with an executive from Ford Motor Co., the results were surprisingly ... not so grim.

It’s a tough time for American automakers. Ditto for American newsweeklies. But this week, when a reporter from Time, fresh off a round of layoffs at its parent company, sat down with an executive at the Ford Motor Co., fresh off announcing a round of layoffs at its plants, the results were surprisingly … not so grim.

Dorinda Elliott’s profile of Ford CEO Bill Ford, which appears on this week’s cover of the magazine, arrives at a critical moment in the history of U.S. car manufacturing. Earlier this week, Ford announced that it will lay off some 30,000 American workers and shutter 14 plants over the next six years as part of a restructuring plan called the “Way Forward.”

The announcement set off a flurry of stories in the media this week. Perhaps because the “Way Forward” plan sounded way familiar to members of the financial press, most of the stories tended to focus on the immediate impacts — Ford stock up! Prices of Ford cars down! Unemployment up! — and ignored questions about the long-term viability of the strategy.

By contrast, Time’s nuanced portrait of Ford’s nuanced CEO, while Time-esque in its fluffiness, is a compelling enough read and at least attempts to answer some of the more difficult questions swirling around the company. For example, “What, besides firing people, is Mr. Ford planning to do to save his company?”

According to Time, Ford’s plan is to unshackle the company’s designers, reduce inefficiency, and compete more aggressively with Toyota. Most interesting, and perhaps disturbing to investors wary of grand experiments, Time reports that Ford intends to invest heavily in a program aimed at tapping the burgeoning market for environmentally friendly cars.

“The staging ground for Ford’s innovation revolution is the top-secret Piquette Project,” Elliott writes. “Unknown by all but the very top-level Ford executives, the program is aimed at nothing short of reinventing Detroit. It’s named after the third-floor Piquette plant skunk works where Henry Ford and a group of engineers first developed the idea of the assembly line and experimented with lighter materials to create a car that could be mass-produced. The specific goals and the deadlines of the Piquette project are secret. But company officials say it harks back to Henry Ford’s innovative experiments with soy-based polymers and the idea of agriculture and industry being closely linked.”

Farm-bred automobiles? The story bears a mild whiff of Ford’s PR machine at work. This is especially so when Time veers into brochure territory, writing for example, that the company’s CEO “wants Ford Motor to lead in alternative-fuel technologies, proving his belief that you can make profits and do good at the same time.”

Still, this is important news, if it’s true, and Time should be commended for focusing on the key issue. Other media organizations have tended to brood over problems — such as the high cost of health care — that are shared by all companies and cannot be solved by any single executive. By contrast, Elliott correctly notes that Ford’s chief problem is the unpopularity of its products and their poor design.

“The clock is ticking for the Americans,” she writes, “and here’s why: Detroit loses money on passenger cars. (Trucks have always been profitable.) … U.S. automakers were lulled into complacency in the 1990s by the supersize profits of their SUVs (light trucks, technically), which just a decade ago earned profit margins as high as 25 percent. … When the price of gas soared, SUV sales tanked, and the U.S. companies were caught without money spinners.”

So, can Ford start building better cars, whether it be on a farm or somewhere else? Time writes that “Until recently, with the exception of a new Mustang, an instant hit, Ford has failed to produce cars that have energized the market.” But the magazine also notes that America’s entrepreneurial spirit has historically made it a leader in developing popular new car models. Ford can recapture its position as the king of design — and some market share — so long as it gets some better leadership from the top brass.

“If [Ford] succeeds — and the odds aren’t necessarily in his favor — Ford Motor could help save the U.S.’s manufacturing base,” Time says.

All of which reminded us that it might still be too early to write off the Big Three American auto manufactures. Ditto for the Big Three American newsweeklies.

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.