When you are John Elkann, the young scion of the powerful Agnelli family and head of the Fiat-Chrysler group, whom do you call for advice? The answer — surprisingly — is Bill Ford Jr.
"He's been giving me very good advice. He is very encouraging about what we were trying to do about getting more involved in the U.S. and really supporting Chrysler's turnaround," Elkann told The Detroit News in an exclusive interview this month. "It's great to have the opportunity to share this with someone like Bill, who has experienced many things and gone through many things ... especially linked to Detroit."
While it may seem surprising that the 55-year-old Ford would be mentoring the 36-year-old head of a rival automaker, it is just the latest chapter in a century-long friendship between the Ford and Agnelli families that has flowered behind the scenes of the fiercely competitive global automobile business. Like Ford, Fiat SpA is a publicly traded company that is still controlled by its founding family.
Giovanni Agnelli built the first Fiat in 1899, four years before Henry Ford started Ford Motor Co. But it was a meeting with Ford in Detroit in 1912 that opened Agnelli's eyes to the possibilities of mass production and inspired him to create Italy's largest industrial enterprise.
Giovanni's grandson, Gianni, kept a picture of the two men on his desk after he took over Fiat in 1966. Gianni became great friends with Henry Ford II and his entrée into the world of the international jet-set. He would do the same for Bill Ford, when the then-30-year-old great-grandson of Henry Ford became head of the automaker's Swiss subsidiary in 1987.
"He invited me down to Torino (Italy) to see him," Ford recalled in a separate interview with The News. "Gianni couldn't have been more gracious, and welcoming and encouraging to me. He spoke very fondly of his relationship with my uncle, and the notion of family-owned companies and the importance of bringing along the next generation, which I guess he saw me as."
Returning the favor
When Bill Ford was elected chairman of Ford Motor Co. 11 years later, Gianni was the first to call and congratulate him. Agnelli became one of Ford's mentors.
"He very much valued the Agnelli family and Ford family relationship, and I grew to as well," Ford said. "One of the things he told me was that, as a family member, probably several things would happen: One is I would be under more scrutiny than any other manager, and the other is that I would encounter resistance from within the company at certain points."
Bill Ford had already experienced the former, but he soon found out that the latter also was all too true as he tried, and failed, to change Ford's caustic corporate culture.
Agnelli remained a source of advice and encouragement to Bill Ford as he led his company through some of the darkest days in its long and storied history. When Agnelli's grandson and heir, John Elkann, was elected vice chairman of Fiat in 2004 following his grandfather's death, Ford began returning the favor.
"We talk about the challenges of families in the business — managing expectations and trying to keep the entire family on the same page," said Ford, who famously prevented a schism in his own family as the company fought for its life in 2007. "I've been at Ford for 34 years and been chairman since 1999. I've had a pretty good run of it, and I think I've seen just about every possible situation. So, I'm hoping that John finds our conversations helpful."
Elkann says he does, and he says their relationship deepened after Fiat took control of a bankrupt Chrysler in 2009.
'A lot of admiration'
"I have a lot of admiration for how Bill handled things. He's been very candid and I'm very curious by nature, so being able to listen to real-life experiences, which to some extent also relate to what I am doing with some of the challenges I will have to face, is very valuable," he said. "Bill has a very strong calm and tranquility. (He knows) what he's trying to do, what's good for the organization, and an incredible experience and knowledge of the global business being in many different markets."
In addition to talking about the challenges of running a family-controlled corporation, Ford and Elkann spend a lot of time talking about managing their top managers. Both men struggled to find the right person to lead their respective companies; both are now led by two of the most respected chief executives in the business: Alan Mulally at Ford, and Sergio Marchionne at Fiat.
"We both have dynamic and extremely talented CEOs. We discuss our relationships with our CEOs, which in both cases is fantastic," Ford said. "But that isn't something that either one of us takes for granted — that it will always be fantastic. We also know it's something that we have to make work, regardless of who's in that seat."
Ford said he has learned a lot from Elkann, too, whom he praised as a "thoughtful" young man with "wisdom far beyond his years." And he says he gets something even more important from their relationship.
"I get a friend. It's rare that we actually have someone in our positions that we can talk with, that really understands," Ford said. "All the other relationships I have in the auto industry, by definition, will turn over. Executives retire, executives leave. But I can see my relationship with John lasting the rest of my life. That's something I value. I wish him nothing but the best, even though we compete like crazy."
Title: Board chairman
At Fiat: He was appointed chairman in 2010; was vice chairman from 2004-10 and a board member since 1997. While in college, he worked at various companies of the Fiat Group in the United Kingdom, Poland and France.
Personal: Born in New York City in 1976. He has a degree in industrial engineering and management from the Polytechnic University in Torino, Italy. His first job after graduation was at General Electric as a member of the corporate audit staff.