Bill Ford's Rainy Days

As business trips go, this one should have been a pleasure for William Clay Ford Jr. The 46-year-old CEO of Ford Motor Co. has come to a political confab on Michigan's Mackinac Island (where, ironically, cars are outlawed) to speak about the company that great-granddad Henry Ford founded 100 years ago. But the evening before his talk, he's backed into a lace curtain in the governor's suite of Mackinac's Grand Hotel, graciously enduring the ritual of receiving admirers. There's Michigan's glamorous new governor, Jennifer Granholm, cooling her heels while Ford coos over a Detroit radio star's baby pictures. Waiting nearby is former senator Fred Thompson, now the gruff D.A. on NBC's "Law & Order," who's admiring a table of tiny white-chocolate Model T's. Most CEOs would revel in this adulation. Not Ford. After 90 minutes, he's had enough. He takes a pull from his water bottle, turns to a bystander and whispers: "How can I get out of here?"

For Bill Ford, there is no escape. His family firm is in crisis, having lost $6.4 billion in the past two years. The Firestone debacle tarnished Ford's crown jewel, the Explorer, and sent sales skidding. And then the economy's post-9-11 swoon set off a price war that ravaged Ford's profits. Now the burden is on the young scion to fix Ford and drive the dynasty into its second century. This week he'll play host to 100,000 people at a bash at headquarters, with a Beyonce concert and parades of vintage Fords (both cars and family members). But privately, Ford is not celebrating his role as CEO of the nation's fourth largest company. In a series of remarkably candid interviews with NEWSWEEK, Ford revealed himself as the reluctant CEO, with misgivings about he toll his job is taking on his time, his hobbies and even his passions out-side work. "I sometimes hit overload. I just don't know how much more I can handle," he says in his wood-paneled office filled with family photos. "I feel like things are coming at me from every possible angle and I'm not sure I'm doing a good-enough job."

Still, as the fourth generation of his clan to lead the automaker, Bill Ford accepts his responsibility to carry on the family tradition. "I can't fail," he says. "That's just not an option." The Fords have always kept a firm grip on the wheel: a family member has run Ford for 80 of its 100 years. Old Henry's descendants, who now number more than 45, still meet twice a year and control the $164 billion company by voting in lockstep a class of stock that grants them extraordinary power. And now it's all riding on cousin Bill to keep the dynasty alive. "I feel like I'm carrying the weight of the legacy," he says wearily, "and the hope of the future."

To stay a step ahead of his problems, he begins his days on the treadmill at 5 a.m. and ends them when he pulls his cobalt blue Mustang into the driveway at 9:30 p.m. They are filled with factory visits, refereeing sharp-elbowed execs and even political fund-raisers. The week of the Mackinac conference, he's also trying to squeeze in his daughters' soccer playoffs, though he'll miss a game. On the corporate jet, he wolfs down a triple-decker PB&J served on china atop white linen. Two Ford execs also munch the favorite sandwich of their vegetarian CEO. They discuss four speeches he's giving that week, the "fairly hard" budget meeting he just had and the latest bankruptcy speculation weighing on the company stock. With a grimace he says, "May sales are turning out about how we expected." Translation: another tough month, which will lead to profit-sapping production cuts. "I'm not having fun yet," he says. "It is enormously grinding."

It wasn't supposed to turn out this way. When Bill Ford became chairman five years ago, his company was riding high and he planned to leave the heavy lifting to hard-charging CEO Jacques Nasser. Ford, a self-described "industrial environmentalist," planned to devote himself to creating the world's greenest automaker. But then the Firestone-tire recall spun out of control and Bill Ford fired Nasser in October 2001. Ford views the day he became CEO as his "low point," adding: "I never wanted to become CEO that way." Since then, he's cut 35,000 jobs, closed factories and watched Ford's stock drop to an 11-year low. It's an uphill battle convincing Wall Street he can deliver on his bold pledge to earn $7 billion in operating profits by mid-decade. But he's gaining traction with new models like a luxe F-150 pickup coming this summer and an edgy Mustang arriving next year. And after prodding hisexecs last fall, budget cutting has accelerated. (For one thing, Ford unloaded his fleet of Gulfstream V jets and now flies in a smaller, used plane.) "He's very capable of running the place," says his old pal Peter Pestillo, CEO of car-parts maker Visteon. "The problem is that he's got a job that he doesn't want."

When he's feeling overwhelmed by his burdens, Ford often doesn't know where to turn. "There's nobody to talk to," he says. "People come in here and dump their problems. I have nowhere to dump my problems." Sometimes, he'll seek "the wisdom of years" from his 78-year-old father, William Clay Ford Sr., a former company vice chairman. But Dad's busy reviving his Detroit Lions football team, which won just five games in the past two seasons. (Bill Jr. helps by speaking daily with new coach Steve Mariucci.) His cousins, who lobbied the board to make Bill the CEO, also offer support. "He's going through a rough time," says Charlotte Ford, daughter of Henry Ford II, who ruled the company for four decades until his death in 1987. "My father always used to say it was lonely at the top."

For Bill Ford, it's loneliest when he's trying to fall asleep. "It's hard for me to get my mind off work when I'm quiet and alone at home," he says. He's tried Tylenol P.M., herbal remedies, calcium supplements and the spiritual writings of Buddhist philosopher Jack Kornfield (a recent favorite: "After the Ecstasy, the Laundry"). But still he wakes up in the middle of the night and scribbles to-do lists on a pad next to his bed. On weekends he does yoga. But he's had to give up fly-fishing, hockey and tae kwon do. (In happier times, he appeared in brown belt in Fortune magazine, breaking a board with his bare hands.) "Everything is gone," he says, "except my family and Ford."

By everything, Ford also means his privacy. Perhaps it's no surprise, but ever since appearing in Ford's TV ads last year, he can't go to his daughters' soccer games without being approached for an autograph, a job or even a personal loan. He and his wife, Lisa, his Princeton University sweetheart, have tried to deflect the spotlight from their four children, ages 7 to 17. They moved from Grosse Pointe to the pastoral outskirts of Ann Arbor. But now their new zone of privacy is being invaded. "I'll be out with one of my children for lunch and all of a sudden people come and butt in," he says. "Everybody's a car expert and everybody's a football expert." He's even had to change his Saturday-morning routine of hitting Starbucks before showering and shaving. "People were asking to have their picture taken with me," he says. "So last week I thought I'd better pull myself together before I go out and get coffee."

All the attention has not made it any easier to speak to a room full of power brokers. Backstage before his Mackinac speech, Ford is fidgety as he looks over the script he's covered with scribbles. "I don't know how many speeches I've given," he says, "and I still get butterflies."

A job this stressful is bound to give anyone butterflies, even someone who grew up in the public eye. Perhaps that's why early retirement sounds appealing. "It would be hard for me to sustain this level of intensity for 20 years," he allows. "Someday, if I'm not in this job, I imagine myself... spending a lot of time, energy and expertise on humanitarian kinds of things." Ford gets worked up about soup kitchens and humanitarian groups. "That would really get me up every morning very, very excited," he enthuses. But then he pulls himself back to family obligations. "This is all I allow myself the luxury of thinking about now," he says. Finally he sums up his current career goal. "I look forward to the day," he says, "when I can answer 'yes,' when somebody asks me if I'm having fun." For now, that day seems a good stretch down the road.