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Bill Ford focuses on technology

From freep| May 28 , 2007

The recent explosion of interest and investment in alternative fuels and other so-called "clean technologies" feels a bit like vindication to Bill Ford.

"When I talked about this stuff in speeches 10 years ago, people thought I was some sort of Bolshevik," the executive chairman of Ford Motor Co. told the Free Press in a rare interview last week.

Vindication aside, Ford is worried that southeastern Michigan is lagging behind other regions in developing new technologies that will revolutionize the global automotive industry in years to come.

He plans to call for an intensive effort to identify and recruit cutting-edge technology firms to metro Detroit -- even tapping high-powered business leaders to get personally involved -- in a speech Thursday to the Detroit Regional Chamber's annual policy conference on Mackinac Island.

"I've spent a lot of time recently in Silicon Valley, visiting companies and venture capitalists," Ford said, noting that all major California-based technology firms have Detroit offices because the auto industry is a big customer for them.

"But they shouldn't just have sales offices here. Why can't we be the incubators of ideas here? We need to be the intellectual locus of the technology that's going to transform our industry," Ford said.

Ford, 50, has kept a low profile since September, when he hired Alan Mulally as president and chief executive officer of Ford Motor. Ford, CEO for the previous five years, took the new title of executive chairman at the Dearborn automaker. He has done few interviews since then and limited his speeches to Ford employee and dealer groups.

But behind the scenes, he has taken a more active role in Detroit Renaissance, starting a two-year term in January as chairman of the influential CEO group's executive committee, just as it was launching Road to Renaissance, a new economic development strategy for the region.

Goals are to boost entrepreneurship, attract and retain top talent, and enhance Detroit's status as a global hub for automotive and other transportation industries.

"There's no question that, in the next 10 or 20 years, we're going to have very different propulsion systems for vehicles. And there's no reason why Detroit and southeast Michigan shouldn't be where the action is," Ford said.

Problem is, Detroit and Michigan are increasingly NOT where the cutting-edge automotive technology action is.

Not only have hometown car companies Ford, General Motors and the Chrysler Group been downsizing, but the national surge in clean-technology investment is mostly happening [email protected]@[email protected]@

Clean tech is the fastest-growing segment of venture capital. But of $2.9 billion in clean-tech investment in North America last year, only 9% was in the Midwest, said James Croce, CEO of Detroit-based NextEnergy, a nonprofit formed five years ago to accelerate Michigan's activities in alternate energy. Nearly 60% went to the West Coast or to New England, he said, citing data from the Clean Tech Venture Network in Brighton.

Just a few years ago, some pundits were scoffing at the notion of a self-professed environmentalist -- Ford -- running an auto company.

"Now all the automakers are out to prove who's greenest," Ford said.

But Michigan must do more outreach, he said, to attract more of the innovative companies in that field.

Doug Rothwell, president and CEO of Detroit Renaissance, said Ford has been "very intimately engaged in each step of the Road to Renaissance action plan."

Ford returned the compliment, saying he agreed to chair the Renaissance executive committee only because Rothwell and Domino's Pizza CEO David Brandon convinced him that the group was committed to action and measuring progress. "The last thing I needed was another committee studying the problems of the last 20 years," Ford said.

The Road to Renaissance plan dovetails with One D, a broader regional collaboration of groups ranging from United Way to the Detroit Regional Chamber and New Detroit, championed by Ford's cousin Edsel Ford II. Edsel Ford will kick off a series of One D planning sessions at the Mackinac gathering this week.

Other scheduled speakers at Mackinac include Teamsters union President James P. Hoffa on Wednesday and UAW President Ron Gettelfinger on Thursday.

Bill Ford, meanwhile, expects to become a bit more visible in the coming months.

Immediately after Mulally's arrival, "I thought, early on, that I didn't want any confusion, externally or internally," Ford said. "I certainly didn't want anyone internally going around Alan and coming to me."

Ford still consults regularly with Mulally on the car company's turnaround progress.

"You'll start seeing more of me as we roll into the rest of this year," he said.

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