The chairman of Ford Motor Company, Jacques Nasser, in a videotaped address to a group of top executives forced to endure another in a series of “diversity-training” seminars, stated that he did not like the sea of white faces in the audience and that one of his prime directives was to ensure that in the future, our company would reflect the broad spectrum of customers that we serve. In case the point had not been driven home with sufficient clarity, a new compensation plan was unveiled, under which management pay plans would be tied to the promotion and nurturing of “minorities.” At this time, the Ford definition of “minority” is broad enough to include women, black, Hispanic, “Native American,” and most foreign employees (as long as they are “persons of color”), but far too narrow to include decorated or disabled war veterans, American blue-collar factory workers, or white men with Ph.D.’s in engineering. It is still unclear what the appropriate reaction should be from an aspiring Caucasian industrial captain: Resign in shame in the name of racial “equality” to make room for the “victims”? Ignore the best and brightest candidates in order to fill a quota, but at least bring home the “minority-bonus” bacon? Or, like an old soldier, just fade away into some obscure corporate backwater?
The answer, at least so far, seems to be all three. Older plant supervisors, technical specialists, field representatives, and design engineers, having faced the prospect of indentured servitude to an endless parade of upwardly mobile but clueless “managers,” are leaving as soon as the ink dries on early retirement and severance packages. This talent drain has resulted in the outsourcing of critical technical and skilled consultative jobs to employment agencies filled with contract laborers—often the very people who were forced out! The major difference, of course, is that this new underclass has no benefits and can be released on a moment’s notice. The only drawback is that this disposable workforce has questionable loyalty to the mother company. In an industry which frequently requires three years to bring a product from “concept to job one,” it is unclear what the long-term quality consequences of such a labor pool will be. It may not take that long to find out: 1999 marked the first time in over a decade that Ford trailed both General Motors and Chrysler in the race for quality.
Still, the indignities suffered by “for-hire” specialists pale in comparison to those inflicted upon Ford employees who try to stay on in “soft-skill” managerial positions reserved for minorities and young guns whose main promotion potential seems to be their willingness to uproot themselves and their families every 18 months to pursue careers in “overseas assignments” and experience the full range of Ford’s global empire. Unfortunately, one-and-a-half years is a grossly inadequate amount of time to learn the fundamentals of most new assignments, so more experienced employees are asked to train their own replacements. Worse, this new breed of worker is never held accountable for performance, since any undesirable “metrics” can be attributed to the previous transient, passed on to the next executive gypsy, or, in an unusually Machiavellian twist—even by corporate standards—blamed on the career specialists who “wrote the book” but who, apparently, are no longer able to read it.
Thus, older workers are encouraged to resign or face unpleasant consequences. One tactic involves a forced move to an undesirable geographic location which will maximize the burden on family life: for example, away from an ancestral home, an ailing elderly parent, or a second business. This may mean giving up a spouse’s career or moving school-age children in midterm. Less subtle harassment techniques include denied vacation requests, overwhelming workloads, and frequent public insults. Company car privileges are revoked. Pay raises and promotions for such people are nonexistent. While demotions are less common, they certainly can be used to devastating effect on particularly hard cases. Over time, frustration and monetary inflation will ensure the extinction of this species.
And to what end? So it can be honestly advertised to the world that at Ford, diversity is job one? To prove that Ford is no longer an American company but a business citizen of the New World Order? To destroy the very fiber of a culture that built such automotive icons as the Model T, the Thunderbird, and the Mustang? This company was never perfect, and even a casual observer of its product line and social history can point to some spectacular failures. But, whatever his faults, Henry Ford left an indelible and largely positive stamp on the face of our country and the “car culture” that we as Americans so passionately embrace. This is still a proud company, steeped deeply in tradition and lore. The legend of its founder’s genius still stirs admiration and awe, even among the new elite. But I can’t help thinking that something irreplaceable has been lost in the current zeal to transform this company from a family-run business into a faceless global giant devoid of any sense that Ford is fundamentally an American institution. I wonder what “Uncle Henry” would think?
There’s no question what Mr. Nasser thinks. A Lebanese-born, internationally educated “renaissance man” who does not hesitate to recount the cultural bigotry he suffered as a student, he has seen the future, and it is not American (or European, for that matter). It’s a global village, and the idiots come in all colors. Too bad all the profits come from one continent. The title of an Automotive News article pretty much says it all: “N.A. profits save day for Ford.” It should be obvious by now that, setting aside the disastrous social consequences, Nasser’s strategy doesn’t work on the business level. But Ford’s been pouring money into South America and Europe for years, so the payoff must be just around the corner, and the ongoing expense of carrying these perennial losers can always be financed through job cuts in the States! After all, it only took eight years and a few billion dollars to turn Jaguar around. Flush with cash. Ford has invested heavily in various prestigious European and Japanese marquees (Volvo, Aston-Martin, Mazda, and Jaguar) while simultaneously outsourcing every conceivable subassembly of U.S. vehicles to Mexico, Canada, and South America in order to reduce the costs (and in most cases the quality) of the parts in what are now American cars in name only.
The irony of this situation is that Ford survived the Japanese, labor strikes, gas shortages, government regulations, and the Edsel, but it may not survive the “leadership” of the current board of directors. The only real hope would be some kind of shareholder revolt (ideally led by the Ford family) based on the pathetic performance of the outstanding stock. Reacting to a heavy reliance on the North American truck market (and possibly to the European and South American follies mentioned above), and suspecting that the boom is over, investors have been dumping Ford stock for some time now, causing a precipitous decline in share prices (23 percent over the last year). But while poor stock prices might cause the ouster of the current CEO, in all likelihood his successor, groomed in the new tradition of “go global or die,” would simply carry out the tragic policies established by his predecessor. Whatever its financial success, that’s a sad legacy indeed for the new Ford Motor Company, and the beginning of the end for a once-great car company, because a legend grows best on its own soil.
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