Bill Ford celebrates 40 years at Ford Motor Co.

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Dearborn — Bill Ford wasn't sure how long he'd stick around when he started at Ford Motor Co at the age of 22. That was forty years ago.

"I thought I'd take it year by year," the Ford executive chairman told roughly 500 employees gathered Tuesday in the auditorium at Ford World Headquarters here. "I was terrified that first day of work would be the first day of the rest of my life. And it was."

But it's been a great ride, he said. 

The automotive scion sat for an hour on stage with his daughter, Alexandra Ford English, to talk about his time with the company his great-grandfather founded. Around two dozen other Ford employees celebrating their 40th anniversaries with the company sat in the front of the auditorium, and others working in the Glass House filed in behind them.

Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford sat for a fireside chat with his daughter, Alexandra Ford English, to celebrate his 40th anniversary with Ford.

Bill Ford, 62, has seen a great deal of change at the Dearborn automaker since his first day at the company on Oct. 15, 1979. The vehicles are more sleek. The Mustangs are louder. The trucks are bigger. The company is pushing ahead with plans to launch new electric vehicles. And, sometimes, the executives come into work dressed more casually, his daughter quipped.

But the chairman riffed on the future of the company. As enamored as he is with the history of his family company, the executive chairman was hard-pressed to pinpoint moments favorite in his career. His early career at Ford took him through various segments of the automaker before he got to the front office at the turn of the century.

And that's when a few of his fondest memories pop up. Ford recruited Alan Mulally from Boeing Co. in 2006 to lead a sweeping industrial restructuring as the automaker slipped into crisis and then the Great Recession, which pushed two Detroit rivals into bankruptcy. 

Those were dark times, Ford remembered. Then CEO, he'd lay awake at night, starting at the ceiling and wondering if the company would crumble on his watch. He was terrified of disappointing everyone: his family, the Ford employees, shareholders. Under Mulally, the automaker mortgaged all its assets in 2006 — even the Blue Oval atop the Glass House — to secure $23.5 billion loan, which helped Ford avoid a government bailout. 

Bill Ford is proud that his company braved the recession without taking any money from the federal government. He's also proud of that day in 2012 when the automaker "got our name back" after mortgaging the logo to stay afloat. He's also proud of the company winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2016, 50 years after Ford beat Ferrari in the epic race.

"We cannot let this great family down," Ford told his daughter. That's why the automaker is undergoing a massive overhaul of its global business under CEO Jim Hackett. "It's much more than us. If I can look back and say we've secured the future for those employees, that would give me the most satisfaction." 

Meantime, Ford plans over the next two years to launch new vehicles to its lineup that could propel the automaker into the next generation of the industry. Those products have Bill Ford excited. He rolled out several vehicles from his personal collection Tuesday to park them inside the Glass House for Ford employees to ogle. There was a heavily modified Bronco that's immensely difficult to drive; There were Ford GTs and a Model T. 

But parked onstage over Ford's shoulder was a boxy green 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid. It was the first hybrid SUV, and it didn't catch on. That could be blamed on a half-hearted marketing effort, or it could have been a head of its time. Bill Ford has a collection of around 30 vehicles, he said, and they're all models to which he has an emotional connection.

That lackluster hybrid kicked off Ford's foray into more fuel efficient and electrified vehicles. More than a decade later, Ford is devoting more resources to hybrid and electric vehicles. Most new Ford models will have a hybrid variant. The automaker is also spending $11 billion on electric vehicles over the next few years.

That includes an as-yet-unnamed battery electric crossover expected to debut by the end of the year that Bill Ford is particularly excited about. 

"If that could sort of be the exclamation point on my career, that would be awesome," he said. "I'm not finished yet. There's a lot I want to do. And I actually think we're at the most interesting point in my 40 years. There aren't a lot of 116-year-old companies that get a second and third act."

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau