Bill Ford Jr. talks about Ford buying the Michigan Central Station and his plans for its future Eric Seals, Eric Seals
Day after day, Bill Ford drove his Mustang GT along Michigan Avenue between Dearborn and Detroit, past the graffiti-covered train station. And he started to wonder about his legacy, his family’s legacy and the future of Ford Motor Co.
“I kept staring at the train station thinking, ‘What if? Wouldn’t that be amazing?’ ” he told the Free Press. “If all we did was to restore this fabulous building and make it sparkle, that would be great. But we’re going to do much more than that. It’s really about creating the future of transportation. And doing it in Corktown.”
The purchase of the Michigan Central Station brings to life Ford’s vision, a vision designed to navigate a changing future rather than falling victim to it.
Bill Ford, great-grandson of company founder Henry Ford, sat in the depot’s cavernous, long-neglected lobby for an interview with the Free Press on Wednesday, two days after the company’s audacious purchase was announced.
“Throughout most of my adulthood, when I would travel anywhere outside of Michigan, people would ask where I was from and I would say ‘Detroit.’ Often people said, ‘Gee, I’m sorry.’ Or ‘Why? Why would you live there?’ I was always very proud of this area. And I love Detroit. Even this building we’re in. It was always photographed as the symbol of what had become of Detroit. It was the symbol of the ruin of our city.”
Soon, he said, it will be the hub for 2,500 Ford jobs in Corktown.
No one could have predicted a dramatic pivot that would include the carmaker’s return to the Motor City with the purchase of multiple parcels in the city’s oldest surviving neighborhood, sprinkled with renovated homes, condos under construction and a few boarded-up structures.
The depot will be one of the biggest restoration projects in recent history. Redeveloping the 18-story building, which is tentatively scheduled for completion in 2022, marks Bill Ford as the second Ford to reshape Detroit’s skyline in 40 years.
His uncle, Henry Ford II, created the Renaissance Center.
William Clay Ford Jr. will refurbish Michigan Central Station at 2001 15th St., a Beaux arts building embedded in the city’s narrative since its opening in 1913.
Already, nearly 200 employees drive, not to Ford World Headquarters, known as the Glass House, or surrounding buildings throughout the Dearborn campus, but instead to a former hosiery factory at 1907 Michigan Ave., known simply as The Factory.
“My daughter works at Ford. She’s actually at The Factory and absolutely loves it,” Bill Ford said. “My kids are vitally interested in the company and in the future. They are so excited by all this.”
The Factory offices, located near trendy restaurants in the hip neighborhood just west of downtown, just opened in May. Corktown assignments have gone to the auto electrification and self-driving teams.
“I’ve always thought about what Ford could and should be like years from now,” the executive chairman said. “As I was thinking about us inventing the new, modern era, particularly after we started to go to what’s now called The Factory here. I had my eye on that two years ago.”
In outlining his vision, Ford weaves stories of the past, the present and the future.
“I’ve been here my entire life,” Ford said. “I’ve seen this city through its best of times and I’ve seen it through its worst of times. I’m old enough to remember when I was young, that everything I did happened in the city. My father’s office was just down the streethere, the old Lions’ office, across from Tiger Stadium.”
The forefront of change
During his drives, Ford thought about the future of cars.
“It struck me, years ago, even back in the depths of the recession, that our world was going to change. Nobody in Detroit was thinking about what that might look like. So I wanted to be at the forefront of that change,” he said.
When General Motors and what then was Chrysler filed for bankruptcy, Bill Ford created a low-profile company that has invested millions of dollars in projects that would help transform the car business.
“I started a venture capital firm here in Detroit called Fontinalis Partners in 2009. It was to invest in the future of mobility when nobody was thinking about the future of mobility,” he said. “We invested in autonomy. We invested in parking solutions. It’s been a huge success. We’re in 1 Woodward Place. I wanted to be downtown. So, we kind’ve invented the whole mobility space. There was nobody else doing it.”
The idea for buying the train station coincided with the arrival of CEO Jim Hackett coming on board in May 2017.
“I started thinking about it about a year ago,” Ford said. “Six months is probably the right time frame for being in earnest discussions with Matt Moroun, who, by the way, was great to deal with. I got to know him through this process. He really wanted this to happen, also.”
The Moroun enterprise started obtaining parts of the station property in the early 1990s, and has owned it all since 1995, facing significant criticism through the years as the building decayed and fell prey to vandals.
Bill Ford and his family represent the last of industrial royalty in America. Most iconic families have sold out. Not Ford. The family has built the top-selling vehicle in America for 36 years straight, the F-Series pickup.
“When my great-grandfather built his first Ford car here in Detroit and had his first plant here in Detroit, it was really kind of the Wild West of entrepreneurism back then. There were so many car companies being formed. Nobody really knew — would they be steam-powered, would they be electric, would they be gasoline-powered? Lots of companies failed, including his first company,” Ford said.
“Then you start thinking of the middle class in our country being created. It was in many ways created right here in Detroit. So my vision going forward is that we are going to re-create what mobility means for the modern times. This will be the hub of it. Not just this building, our entire Corktown campus,” he said.
“If you think of it, the corridor between Ann Arbor, Willow Run, Dearborn and Detroit, it becomes a really interesting corridor for us at Ford, where we can test all the autonomous vehicles. We can test on city streets around here. We can bring people to and from our facilities and build all the business models around autonomous vehicles. So I would love to see this area, Corktown, be the Sand Hill Road of the mobility space. I believe it will be.”
Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park, California, sees millions of dollars in deals done in fancy offices that line the corridor. It is where companies like Facebook, Apple, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn and Netflix come to life.
Inside the train station
In Detroit, Ford envisions a former train station that has coffee shops, restaurants and shopping on the first floor and office space for up to 5,000 people on the floors above. Much of the space will be leased out by Ford. The renovated depot will be a public attraction, but also a potential revenue generator.
“I would love to see startups, young entrepreneurs in here,” Ford said. “Ever since the rumors started leaking out, I’ve been contacted by a number of people. We don’t really know what to say yet. We haven’t finalized any plans. We’re just getting going, in some ways. Those will be conversations we’ll be having over the next couple years.”
The timing is uncertain.
“We’re saying four years from now,” Ford said. “Once you get into restoration of a project of this nature, you don’t really know what you’re going to find. What’s going to be really cool is that this beautiful space will be completely restored and be open to the public. We don’t want to just be this corporate entity coming downtown. We want to be part of the fabric of Corktown.”
Center for entrepreneurs
Ford said he’ll seek input from the community. And he’s trying to decide what, if any, urban art element will remain.
“Ever since I started thinking about, this I’ve had my eye open. I’ve been to New York several times, and seen some of the amazing new developments. The one that really caught my eye was the ferry terminal in San Francisco,” Ford said. “It’s a working ferry terminal, but it’s a meeting spot for everybody in that area. So people meet for coffee, they meet for lunch. They have some really fun and interesting retail experiences. It’s just buzzing with activity and buzzing with life. And I love that.”
The San Francisco Ferry Building has a thriving farmer’s market, a bookstore with author lectures, high-end and quick-stop Asian and Mexican restaurants, artisan chocolates and cheeses, wine shops, garden shops.
“We’d like to bring in Detroit entrepreneurs who want to do really interesting and cool things here. We will bring in probably some national cutting-edge kinds of experiences, as well. I think I don’t want to replicate an experience that you could have somewhere else,” Ford said. “It would be really great if we could do things that were unique here, and that were uniquely Detroit. Those are conversations that will all take place over the next two or three years, as we develop this.”
He continued, “Think of when Shinola opened, that was uniquely Detroit. Some of our restaurants are uniquely Detroit. My guess is we’ll have entrepreneurs approach us with all kinds of ideas. I hope they do. And we’ll be open to them.”
The train station is a passion project. The purchase has made headlines worldwide and holds the promise of rebranding Ford as a hip company willing to explore what’s possible while celebrating what once was.
The car company could use the lift. Its stock price Friday was flat to where it was in October 2016, a little under $12 a share, while most competitors have seen strong growth amid record sales. One of the company’s biggest headlines of the past year is not about future mobility, but its decision to stop making all traditional cars but the Mustang to focus on F Series pickups and SUVs.
Forde’s Irish roots
Not only are investors and journalists from as far as France planning trips to Detroit in coming days, as the Motown resurrection continues, but people in Ireland are watching closely.
“I was there just a year ago to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Ford Ireland in Cork. We still have relatives there that I go visit. Just as Henry Ford’s father left Ireland, William Ford, whom I’m named after, left during the potato famine, so many Irish emigrated from Cork and ended up here in Corktown. So, there’s also some real personal symmetry for me, as well, to be here.”
By the way, he just found out from a relative that Ford had an “e” at the end for most of its family history. No one knows exactly when the letter was dropped.
“I always visit Ford Ireland,” he said. “We still have an operation there. Of course, there it’s called Henry Ford & Son. It’s not called Ford Ireland. The reason for that is, when Henry first wanted to open something in Ireland, his shareholders said no, that’s not a priority for us. So, he opened with his own money, he opened our Cork operation. But he couldn’t call it Ford Motor Company, so he called it Henry Ford & Son. It eventually got bought out quite quickly by Ford Motor Company. But the name is still Henry Ford & Son there. It’s kinda neat.”
He continued, “So I go there frequently and visit our relatives there, who are still on the original homestead. I usually visit with the political leaders while I’m there. I’ve taken my family there several times because I love it. I love the people and I love the country. And I love our family history there, too. Everybody in Ireland knows that history. They’re very proud of the fact that the Fords came from Ireland.”
Residents of Cork, Ireland,have emailed Ford, praising the Corktown deal. They see it as honoring their relatives who came to Detroit on the potato famine ships.
The company emphasizes that its budget was not impacted by the train station purchase, because the spending was covered in an existing budget and just a small part of Ford’s global operations.
How much does it cost?
On the company’s balance sheet, there’s a line for “net property” under “assets” that includes property transactions, appreciation, depreciation, machinery, tooling and equipment, among other items. Individual transactions are not broken out, and that means the public is unlikely to ever know what Ford paid the Morouns for the depot. The line item was $35.3 billion in 2017, according to the annual report.
“Look, we, in 2016, put money into our budget for the next five years to rebuild our campus. Doing this building is well within that budget. So, there’s no new money coming into this, and we’re getting some incentives to help us with restoration. So the business case actually works for this very well,” Ford said.
“In addition, had we not had this building, we would’ve had to build something else, which would’ve cost a fair amount of money, and would have had none of the branding, and also I think this is gonna be a great magnet to pull talent here. Anybody who’s working on the future, I think, would love to be in this space and love to be part of this whole Corktown experience.”
The experience already is winning kudos from Ford employees, but people are wondering about parking in the area.
Part of that solution eventually may involve Ford’s expectation of driverless shuttles.
“You’ve got a straight shot down Michigan Avenue to our Dearborn campus. It’s not a big stretch to think about AVs (autonomous vehicles) going between Dearborn and here. Not just this building but also other Corktown facilities that we own,” Ford said. “Then, over time, you could easily see that being expanded to not just Ford employees but the general public. You’re going to ask me, probably, time frame. I don’t think anyone could possibly answer that yet, in terms of when they’re going to be ready for unveiling. It won’t be long.”
Lessthan five years, in time for the train station opening? “Probably somewhere in there.”
Everything with self-driving cars begins at low speeds and with protected areas known as geofencing, Ford emphasized.
“There’s been so much hyperbole and so much over-promising,” he said. “Ford is a really trusted brand. As we do the research, that is reinforced time and again. Therefore, I think it’s really important that we don’t add to the hyperbole, and that we do things when we’re ready, when they’re safe and ready for prime time. That’s why you haven’t heard us and you won’t hear us making a ton of grand pronouncements. … I’d rather under-promise and over-deliver. That’s not happening in this space right now. Everybody’s trying to grab headlines. I don’t think headlines are important. I think what’s important is the actual development of the technology.”
Blue Oval on the building?
In announcing the sale, Matthew Moroun said “Ford Motor Company’s Blue Oval will adorn the building.” Ford isn’t sure.
“I don’t know yet,” he said “We’ll have some sort of signage at some point, whether it’s on the building or on the ground. We want it to be tasteful, I want it to fit in. When we come down here, this isn’t like some corporate takeover of Corktown. We’re very sensitive to that. I’m very sensitive to that.”
Company executives, he said, will work in both Dearborn and Corktown.
“For sure I’m going to spend a lot of time here, not just because it’s gonna be the coolest building I’ll ever be part of, but also because it’ll really be creating the vision I have for our company,” Ford said, as heavy equipment whirred in the empty building. “For certain, I will have an office here. But I don’t even know if that means I’ll have a physical office or just come down here with my laptop and sit down somewhere.”
Nothing about Corktown should be perceived as bad news for Dearborn, Ford said.
“We’ve been there for 115 years. And that won’t change,” Ford said. “It’s about connecting this to our Dearborn campus. Really, in a world of future transportation, they are easily linked. We’re still going to have many more employees in Dearborn than we are down here. We still have really great plans for the Dearborn campus, and that won’t change. It’s not either/or, it’s both. At the end of the day, this is going to be a great place for our employees; not just our current ones, but also future ones.
“We’re in a war for talent. If you think about some of the great tech companies that have these beautiful campuses, nobody will have anything like this.”
Ford employs approximately 202,000 worldwide and approximately 48,000 in southeast Michigan alone. The jobs in Corktown will be a combination of new and existing positions.
While Detroit has been undergoing a rebirth, “this kind of puts an exclamation point on it,” Ford said.
So far, no one has raised the issue of enhanced security, as Dan Gilbert and Bedrock did along the Woodward Avenue corridor.
“That has not been discussed,” Ford said. “We’re down at The Factory now, that has not been a concern.”
He challenged critics who question the wisdom of buying a huge, abandoned building.
“First of all, it’s really a great branding exercise. Secondly, it becomes a talent magnet for inventing the future,” Ford said. “And I’m not sure it does anything for the stock price immediately. Over time, I believe absolutely it will.”
Over the years, Ford has earned a reputation for taking an unpredictable path on issues related to building investment and the environment.
He talks of being guided by an appreciation for historical experience, as well as simple childhood pleasures of enjoying the outdoors. He fished in northern Michigan as a boy, and, later, related to the writings of Ernest Hemingway and Rachel Carson.
“It all resonated with me. When I got out of college and moved back here, I was shocked at not only the lack of recognition of environmental issues, but actually the staunch opposition to it. You know, I always felt unless we got on the right side of that equation, we were gonna end up like the tobacco industry, where we wouldn’t be able to attract the best and the brightest. And I never wanted our employees to have to apologize to their family and friends for working there. I always wanted them to be incredibly proud of Ford.”
He continued, “When I did the Rouge, that was another building that I spent a lot of my time and personal capital on, was the Rouge rebuild, and I wanted to take the world’s biggest brownfield plant and turn it into the greenest assembly plant in the country. A lot of people thought that was crazy. Now, everybody thinks, ‘oh, of course you did that.’ At the time, it was very controversial.”
Unlike many big Michigan companies, Ford headquarters encourages consumer recycling with labeled bins in public spaces, much the way Silicon Valley companies have done for years. Bill Ford spent a decade traveling to the area while serving on the board of eBay.
He is also a man who remembers flying into Detroit and seeing the city on fire during the 1967 riots. “It was a very vivid memory that was literally burned into my brain,” he said.
In his spare time
After the international press attention dies down, Ford will slip back into a routine that includes playing hockey one to three times a week.
“My favorite athlete of all time was Gordie Howe. I had a picture of him over my bed when I was growing up,” Ford said. “I went to the Gordie Howe hockey school when I was a kid. One of the great moments of my life was when I got checked by Gordie Howe when I was 5 years old.”
Life outside the limelight is preferred. Bill Ford really doesn’t enjoy press attention. The press loves you and hates you and ignores you and loves you again, he said.
But this, right now, this is nice, Ford said.
“All the noise and construction, it’s a sign of progress. And it should be a very welcome sound. This place has been silent for a long time.”
Contact Phoebe Wall Howard: 313-222-6512 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @phoebesaid
William Clay Ford Jr. — Bill
Married to: Lisa; they have four grown children
College: Bachelor of Arts from Princeton; Master of Science in Management from Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Career: Joined Ford Motor Co. in 1979 as a product planning analyst. He has worked in manufacturing, sales, marketing, product development and finance. Elected company vice president in 1994 to head the commercial truck vehicle center. CEO from 2001-06. Executive chairman since 2006.
Depot open house
Ford will host a community open house on Friday, June 22-Sunday, June 24, for a rare look inside Michigan Central Station before renovations.
Details of the open house will be shared at the company’s event at 11 a.m. Tuesday at the train station. The public will be admitted Tuesday on a first come, first served basis, officials said. Registration may be found at: https://fordcorktowncelebration.splashthat.com/
Detroit Free Press, June 17, 2018