William C. "Bill" Ford Jr. '75, executive chairman of the board of Ford Motor Company, accepted the 2018 Alumni Award on Nov. 2 during an All-School Meeting in Elfers Hall.
Ralph Booth '72, P'01,'03, introduced Ford and joined him on stage for an informal conversation and a Q and A with students. Booth was Ford's proctor when he was at Hotchkiss, and the two later became business partners. In 2009, they co-founded Fontinalis, a venture capital company that focuses on using technology to enhance mobility across all modes of transportation.
Senior Nia Talley, a student from Instructor in Economics Adam Lang's independent study class, asked whether Ford learned any specific skills during his time at Hotchkiss that were helpful in his career.
Hotchkiss offered a liberal arts education that opened up the world to him, Ford said. "Hotchkiss also forced us to be able to speak and write," he said, noting former English instructor Robert Hawkins, who routinely doled out Fs to students if they misplaced a comma on their papers. "We had to not only rewrite the paper (and we had to write a paper every day), but we had to write the rule we had broken 10 times or more at the end of the paper, so writing was a lifelong lesson that was invaluable throughout my career."
At Hotchkiss, Ford also developed a deep appreciation of the environment and the issues confronting the natural world, which set the stage for the environmental advocacy he pursued later on.
Ford earned his B.A. from Princeton, then an M.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He joined Ford Motor Company in 1979 as a product planning analyst and held positions in manufacturing, sales, marketing, product development, and finance. He joined the board of directors in 1988 and has been its chairman since 1999. He was named executive chairman in 2006.
Today, he's focused on leading the company that "put the world on wheels" into a new era of sustainable, accessible, and affordable mobility. His journey into the future, he said, is guided by the ideas and ideals he developed in the past.
When he joined the company, he recalled, he was an enthusiastic environmentalist at a time when most people in the auto industry didn't want to go beyond regulatory compliance. But he kept speaking out about the environment and sustainability, and in time, his views became the consensus.
Ford's top priority echoes that of his great-grandfather, Henry Ford: making people's lives better. He continues to focus on making his company "green," but in recent years, he has taken on a new challenge: transforming it into a leader of future mobility.
To address issues ranging from traffic congestion and climate change to economic disruption and public health, the auto industry is undergoing its most revolutionary transformation in more than 100 years, according to Ford. In the near future, cars will be radically different — capable of driving themselves and powered by clean, renewable electricity, with an incredible array of information and entertainment options. They will be integrated into systems that tie public and private transportation together and accessed, owned, and used in radically new ways.
"But instead of looking at all the coming changes in the industry as disruptively negative, I'm looking at this as the opportunity of a lifetime," Ford said.
Throughout a career that spans nearly four decades, Ford has emphasized the importance of improving lives and serving society. In 2015, he was presented with Steven Spielberg's USC Shoah Foundation's prestigious Ambassador for Humanity Award. In 2017, he received the Atlantic Council Distinguished Business Leadership Award. A member of the Irish America Hall of Fame, he also has been awarded an honorary doctorate of environmental sciences and engineering from Koç University, an honorary doctorate of law from the University of Michigan, an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Bradley University, and an honorary doctorate of economic science from University College Cork and the National University of Ireland.
During the ceremony, Paul Mutter '87, chair of the Board of Governors Nominating Committee for Awards, praised Ford's commitment to the environment — and to promoting sustainability and ethical leadership in the automotive industry.
In presenting the award, President of the Board of Trustees Jeannie Weinberg Rose '80, P'18, praised Ford's remarkable career. "You have demonstrated how pursuing a passion and leading with one's values can truly leave a mark on a company, a generation, and a society," she said.