Ford Offers PC To Every Worker
$5-a-Month Plan Reflects Firm's Focus on Internet
By Warren Brown and Frank Swoboda
Leapfrogging across the "digital divide" that some fear separates wealthy computer users from people unable to afford them, Ford is the first major company to offer every employee, from the loading dock to the boardroom, the tools to participate in the Information Age.
"It is clear that individuals and companies that want to be successful in the 21st century will need to be leaders in using the Internet and related technology. That is what this program is all about," Chairman Bill Ford said.
Ford, the nation's second-biggest company in terms of revenue, is betting the estimated $300 million cost of the program will be quickly offset by gains in making all its employees computer literate.
"We're committed to serving consumers better by understanding how they think and act," said Jacques Nasser, Ford's president and chief executive. "Having a computer and Internet access in the home will accelerate development of these skills, provide information across our businesses, and offer opportunities to streamline our processes."
Ford said it may offset some of its costs by selling advertisements to run on the Internet service its employees will use. But even with that, the ambitious program appears unique in corporate America. Even Microsoft Corp. has nothing similar. And Hewlett-Packard Co., which is supplying the hardware under contract with Ford, provides computers only to employees who need them for work.
The program results from a contract settlement negotiated last year between the automaker and the United Auto Workers union. But Nasser said the computer program would cover all employees, even those not represented by the UAW. "We're not leaving out anyone," Nasser said.
Edward Hay, president of UAW Local 919 at the Ford pickup-truck plant in Norfolk, called the computer plan a "really good thing. The way the modern world is going, it's all going to be about computers and we've got to get up to speed."
Many members of the local put off buying computers at Christmas in anticipation of a Ford computer program. But Hay said no one on the local predicted the deal would be this good. UAW officials said they have talked to both General Motors Corp. and DaimlerChrysler AG about similar deals, but officials at those companies said they now have no plans to follow Ford. The three U.S. automakers, however, have in the past tended to match each others' benefits programs.
There are no strings attached to the computer deal for individual employees and no requirement that the PCs be used for work. Both Ford and UAW officials said there will be no monitoring of how employees use their computers or Internet access.
Company sources said the price tag could be as much as $300 million over three years, but Ford officials declined to confirm that. Ford last year netted $7.2 billion on revenue of $60 billion. It has another $28 billion in the bank.
In the United States, Ford workers will pay $5 a month for the basic package put together by San Francisco-based PeoplePC Inc. Hewlett-Packard Corp. will supply the computers and printers, and Fairfax-based UUNet Technologies Inc., a subsidiary of MCI WorldCom Inc., will provide the Internet access.
After three years--and a total payment of $180 per employee--the hardware will be the worker's property, though Ford officials said it isn't clear yet if employees will have to continue to pay for Internet access.
Elsewhere in the world, the monthly fee will be adjusted for household incomes and living standards.
The $5 fee is largely symbolic. It harkens back to 1914, when Henry Ford, the company's founder, introduced the then-revolutionary industrial wage of $5 a day. Chairman Bill Ford, Henry's grandson, said the $5-a-month computer offer is equally revolutionary.
The base computer will have a 500-megahertz Intel Celeron chip, 64 megabytes of RAM, a 4.3-gigabyte hard disk, CD-ROM drive, 15-inch monitor, speakers and a modem. The printer will be a color inkjet.
Hardware will start going out to Ford employees in April. All Ford employees who want to participate in the program should receive the necessary equipment within 12 months, according to the company and UAW officials.
Hewlett-Packard sold 7.6 million personal computers worldwide last year, 4 million in the United States. If 300,000 Ford employees take advantage of the program, as Hewlett-Packard projects, the deal would represent nearly 4 percent of the company's worldwide computer sales. Weis said yesterday that it was one of the biggest single computer sales contracts for the company.
Over the past year, Ford has moved aggressively to establish itself as the e-business leader, at least in the automotive industry. Under Nasser's prompting, the company has entered into deals with Oracle Corp. to use the Internet to speed up transactions and cut costs in dealing with suppliers. The company has also struck deals with Microsoft Corp., CarPoint and Yahoo Inc. to help customers shop for cars and trucks and other Ford-provided automotive services.
Ford announced another agreement Wednesday, this one with UPS Logistics Group, to drastically reduce the delivery times of components to Ford factories and products to consumers.
Organized labor is also getting into the low-price computer business with the creation last fall of Workingfamily.com, which has already signed up more than a dozen unions representing approximately half the 13 million members of the AFL-CIO. But the lowest price the unions have come up with so far is $8 a week.
© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company