Ford Elevates Two Family Members for Dealerships’ EV Shift

Ford Motor Co. elevated two members of the founding family in an executive shuffle aimed at improving marketing and relations with its dealers as the automaker shifts to building electric vehicles.

(Bloomberg) — Ford Motor Co. elevated two members of the founding family in an executive shuffle aimed at improving marketing and relations with its dealers as the automaker shifts to building electric vehicles.

Elena Ford, cousin of Executive Chair Bill Ford, was promoted to the newly created position of chief dealer engagement officer effective Tuesday, from her previous position of chief customer experience officer, according to a company statement. In her new role, Elena Ford will work with 10,000 dealers worldwide on retail facilities, training, diversity and community engagement.

William Clay Ford III, son of the executive chair, will join the company later this month as general manager of its performance division that develops and markets souped-up models.

The Ford family still controls the 120-year-old automaker through a special class of stock and three of its members sit on the company’s board of directors.

In an interview, Elena Ford said the founding family’s enduring involvement is “great” for the company and something employees and dealers “are really excited about.”

“Most of the dealers are family-run businesses, so they feel very connected to us,” Ford said. “It’s so important to keep this legacy and this passion for the business.”

Elena Ford, who in 28 years at the company has held a variety of roles in marketing and at Ford Credit, said a key part of her new role is preparing dealers for the transition to EVs. They will need more training to convince buyers to make the switch from traditional internal combustion engine models, she said. Ford recently throttled back EV production as sales growth of battery powered models slowed, something Chief Executive Officer Jim Farley attributes to buyers beginning to push back on EV’s high prices.

Dealers “want more training for their front-line employees, the people who are going to sell the vehicle,” Ford said of the EV transition. “That’s a new muscle.” 

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The automaker on Tuesday also named Lisa Materazzo its chief marketing officer. Materazzo previously was Toyota Motor Corp.’s top marketing executive in North America.  

Family Affairs

Tapping family members for senior leadership roles, especially newly-created positions, always carries risk inside a family-owned organization, according to Jennifer Pendergast, the former executive director of the Ward Center for Family Enterprises at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

“They might be qualified, but the optics are an issue,” she said in a phone interview. “It could create serious problems with senior leaders who are not family members, who feel this is not a real meritocracy. Then you have issues on attracting outside talent.”

To alleviate those risks, Ford needs to clearly establish the expertise that each family member brings to their role, Pendergast said. “It can be a positive, because they will care more about the values of the business. But it has to be managed well.”

Executive Chair Bill Ford established a special hiring standard for family members: They must have at least five years’ experience outside the company and degrees from two top universities, a company spokesman said. William Clay Ford III has degrees from Princeton University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and worked for a decade in venture capital and as an entrepreneur.

At French luxury conglomerate LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE, all of Chief Executive Officer and Chairman Bernard Arnault’s children have roles within the group, with the two oldest, Delphine and Antoine, on the board, paving the way for the eventual succession to the next generation. But every Arnault family member has paid his or her dues, though, by working on smaller brands first and rising up through the ranks.

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“You can’t argue with the pedigree of those family members,” Pendergast said. “They are steeped in the tradition of high-end luxury goods. Nobody questions that.”

Some experts said Ford’s appointments could be an asset. Paul Argenti, a professor of corporate communications at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth who has advised family-owned businesses, said it could “give people confidence that this company and its family are still tied together in a way that provides the stability that most companies don’t have.”

It still presents challenges, though, particularly for William Clay Ford III. “He will never know if people are just sucking up to him because he’s a Ford,” Argenti said.

(Updates with company hiring standard for family members in 13th paragraph)

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