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Book Review: Ford's Comeback as an 'American Icon'

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Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn could be Ford's chairman and CEO today if Bill Ford had agreed to give up his chairman's title in 2006. Former Chrysler CEOs Bob Nardelli and Tom Lasorda tried to form a major alliance with Ford that would have eliminated thousands of jobs in southeast Michigan in 2008. Ford President of Americas Mark Fields nearly came to blows with former CFO Don LeClair in a secret office at Greenfield Village in Dearborn.

These are a few of the scenes painted by Detroit News auto industry writer Bryce Hoffman in his new book, "American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company," Crown Business, 2012.

We have seen a few books now about the near collapse of the U.S. auto industry in 2008 and 2009, including The New York Times' reporter Bill Vlasic's "Once Upon A Car: The Fall and Resurrection of America's Big Three Automakers," Steven Rattner's "Overhaul: An Insider's Account of the Obama Administration's Emergency Rescue of the Auto Industry" and the Wall Street Journal's Paul Ingrassia's "Crash Course: The American Automobile Industry's Road to Bankruptcy and Bailout and Beyond."

Aspects of the Ford story were in all those books, but Hoffman's is the first to bore in on Ford alone. For auto industry insiders, employees of the "Big Three" and the people doing business with the car companies, it is, like the others, a must-read. It may prove to be too much in the weeds for the casual reader, but that doesn't take away from Hoffman's good work and scholarship.

Much of the story focuses on the period between 2006 through 2009, fortunately, because the last thing anyone needs is another litany of Ford's beginnings and Ford family drama. The only family drama in the book, fresh and well reported here, is when family members wanted to explore taking the company private or selling it to better monetize their holdings.

The 20-year Ford reporter expertly captured the toxic corporate culture that dominated the company for decades before and after Henry Ford II's reign. Prior to Mulally's arrival, Ford's day-to-day, week-to-week management could resemble a staging of "The Lion In Winter."

Bill Ford's tenure as CEO from 2001 to 2006 may look like a failure of the great grandson of Henry Ford. But what sunk Ford's ability to cope with worsening business conditions and its own hopelessly inefficient global operations was one of the biggest collections of C-suite executives to ever collect a paycheck surrounding Bill Ford.

People like former International Chiefs Mark Schulz and David Thursfield, COOs Jim Padilla and Anne Stevens and former CFO Don Leclair, all of whom Bill Ford rotated into key spots, embodied the selfish, "my career first and the company last" credo. It made bringing Ford to the success that Alan Mulally and the current senior team created previously impossible.

Not that current executive leadership like Mark Fields, Chief Marketing Officer Jim Farley, Ford Asia Chief Joe Hinrichs and CFO Lewis Booth haven't been concerned about their careers and earnings even in the darkest times, but not to the extent that they lost all perspective on the health and future of the company the way their predecessors did. When the shit was hitting the fan, they put raincoats on and responded to Mullaly's new approach of honest management, putting an end to the palace-court personal dramas that the previous group could not leave behind.

The current team hasn't been perfect either, however. True, they kept Ford out of bankruptcy in 2009, and the company is now making billions amidst streamlined operations and a vastly improved product lineup. But while the product lineup is much better today, the team has made some noticeable and obvious flubs.

Preserving the Taurus name looked right to Mulally, but the car, an excellent driver, has not been a sales winner as people balk at the $30,000-plus price tag for a brand name that had become a rental car fleet mainstay. The Ford Flex, while mechanically terrific, versatile and enjoyable to drive, has been a sales dud largely because of its polarizing styling. The automatic transmission on the new Ford Fiesta has been a problem. And the company's Sync/MyFordTouch system, while paying off in higher transaction prices, was served up before its time and has been a big source of customer complaints, setting back Ford's quality ratings.

It is also interesting to read that Mulally and company were stunned when President Obama agreed to have the U.S. government take a huge equity stake in GM as part of the bailout, and that the bankruptcy reorganization, among other things, laid asbestos claims from brake manufacturing at Ford's doorstep alone, whereas previously GM and Ford were sharing responsibility for litigation costs and payouts. As smart as these folks were through the darkest days of the crisis, they were missing some signals and details.

For Ford followers, it's good stuff indeed to read the back-and forth between Joe Hinrichs and now-former UAW President Ron Gettelfinger, meetings in clandestine offices and horse-trading. Board members, typically hard to get to open up, were made available to Hoffman. And hearing voices like Carl Reichert's and John Thornton's shed some light on previously dark corners of Ford are enjoyable.Even the way the public relations chiefs leak memos to the media as part of a process of garnering favorable press will surprise some readers.

There is necessary, if at times boring, detail about the management of Ford's debt, but it has to be part of this account as Hoffman's book serves as a comprehensive record of a historic period for the company.

The Detroit News reporter sticks to his knitting. He throws a lot of compliments at characters like Mulally and Fields, but it's hard to avoid that, given the record and their performance. Their leadership, judgement and savvy stands in stark contrast to the team at GM that led that company to the bottom between 1991 to 2008.

Hoffman could have made more sweeping philosophical and even political points about what drove the industry down -- the lack of energy policy that makes the price of gasoline in the U.S. highly unpredictable, the lack of national healthcare in the U.S. that makes it impossible for companies to adequately plan costs, the lack of appreciation and understanding of these business factors by members of Congress who sought to drive the companies into uncontrolled bankruptcy, and the true nature of the conflict between the automakers and the UAW.

But maybe that is to his benefit. Hoffman is a reporter and he reported, resisting the urge he might have had to be an oracle on what ails the industry on a macro level.

If Ford matters to you, you are going to want to read "American Icon."

Grand Blvd. is a weekly column about cars from David Kiley. For more of his writing, and everything about cars, head over to AOL Autos.