Edsel Bryant Ford II didn't like the question. He'd been asked too many times -- thousands, probably -- since his birth 33 years ago: "Hey, Edsel, when are you going to take over the Ford Motor Co.?"
But here it was again. "Where do you want to go in your career?" Translate that as: "Hey, Edsel, when are you going to take over . . . ?"
"You see, that's silly," Ford said. "I mean, I don't sit in my office and say: 'Well now, next year, I'll be in this job. And the following three years from now, I'll be in that job, and then I'll be in that one.' I don't do that. I don't have time to do that."
He doesn't. Grooming an heir is time consuming. And the senior heads at Ford have been spending much time grooming "young Edsel" to take over the wheel of the nation's second-largest automaker. Ford, a graduate of Babson College, a small but highly regarded business school in Babson Park, Mass., currently is working as marketing plans manager in the company's Ford Division.
Ford Motor Co., headquartered in this Detroit suburb, was founded in 1903 by Edsel Ford II's great-grandfather, Henry Ford. Grandfather Edsel B. Ford ran the company until his death in 1943. Edsel II's father, Henry Ford II, 64, known in these parts as "Hank the Deuce," served as chief executive officer of the company, first as president and later chairman of the board, from 1945 until March 13, 1980.
Henry II stepped down to bring in fresh leadership, in the form of current board chairman Philip Caldwell, during a time of crisis management for Ford Motor Co. in particular and the domestic auto industry in general. But "The Deuce" keeps an influential hand on the reins as chairman of the company's finance committee.
The Ford family, including Henry II's younger brother, William C. Ford, who serves as vice chairman of the automaker, owns 40 percent, or 12.7 million, of the voting shares of Ford stock (Class B, at 5.677 votes per share). The other 60 percent is owned by holders of 107.7 million shares of common stock (one vote per share).
William Ford's son, William Jr., 25, is a Princeton graduate and marketing strategy analyst in Ford's North American Automotive Operations.
But by most accounts, Edsel II is on the fast track, though his succession to the chairman's seat is not a sure thing. "There are no crown princes in the Ford family," one knowledgeable family associate said.
But Edsel II, who first worked at the company as a 20-year-old sales trainee, is proving to be a quick study who has the potential to handle bigger things, corporate leaders confide. "He's no longer just a son-of-a-boss. He's worked hard and earned respect," one Ford official said.
Edsel II shuns such talk. He said he is a company man, a team player working to improve Ford's 17 percent share of the U.S. auto market and to expand the vast overseas holdings of the company, which had total assets of $23 billion last year.
"You can't afford not to be a team player in this company," Ford said. "The people who have not been team players haven't survived too well."
Survival in the auto industry, particularly in the marketing area, is a tricky business. It's easy to make mistakes. Witness the 1957 sales debacle of the Edsel, a car named after Edsel II's grandfather.
The Edsel, with its arresting oval grill, was one of the most researched cars in domestic automotive history. Ford's market analysts expected it to be one of the company's hottest sellers. Instead, it became one of automotive history's biggest flops.
"I wasn't with the company when they did the research" on the Edsel, said Edsel II, who was eight years old at the time. "Our research, now, is very, very scientific."
He suggested that research on the Edsel may have had serious flaws. "I don't know what they showed" potential buyers in the early 1950s, when research on the Edsel was done, he said. "They might have showed them one thing and then built something else when the car came out."
The problem is that the auto industry has a basic inability to respond to abrupt market changes, such as that brought about in the United States in late 1973 by chronic oil shortages, Ford said.
"This is one industry that has a lot of problems in short turnaround times. We literally cannot do it. It's just too hard," he said. "We literally can't turn around in a year. If all of a sudden, the dogs don't want to buy the dog food, for some reason or another, it's very hard to turn around" on short notice to meet the new demand.
Ford Motor Co.'s new meat for 1983 is a fresh line of aerodynamic models, featuring a radically different Thunderbird that the company hopes will set a hot sales pace in the new model year. Edsel Ford II had very little to do with the creation of the new products. He was busy working his way up through the ranks as assistant managing director of Ford Motor Co. of Australia Ltd. when all of the 1983 and most of the 1984 Ford cars were designed. But his absence from the early action on the '83s has not daunted his enthusiasm for the company line.
"Look at these cars," Ford said with enthusiasm, looking at a group photo of the new models and remarking of the Thunderbird, "What a beautiful car, a beautiful car."
Ford said he has been that way since childhood, "always excited over new models. I'm in this business because I like cars. I'm not in it for the money."
But Edsel Ford II is rich. Exactly how rich, neither he, his friends nor associates would say. He avoids discussions of personal wealth with the same fervor with which he shuns talk about personal ambition. "I pay monthly bills like everbody else," he said.
"I never thought about going into any other business," Ford said, reminiscing of his childhood in Grosse Pointe Farms, a wealthy Detroit suburb. He and his wife of eight years, the former Cynthia Lane Neskow, daughter of a Tequesta, Fla., oral surgeon, make their home in Grosse Point with their 2-year-old son, Henry Ford III.
Still, Edsel II said he sometimes experiences a kind of corporate wanderlust. "You know, you look at other corporations and you see how successful they are, and you sit back and wonder what it would be like to work for them.
"But I'd never want to change," he said. "I like cars too much . . . . I really enjoy sheet metal and engines and looking at them, feeling them. It's hard for me to shut it off. I don't really try to shut it off."
In fact, Ford said he has a dream. He says, in all seriousness, that he wants to make Ford Motor Co. the McDonald's of the auto industry.
"Hey," he said, "if we can have the kind of reputation in the marketplace that McDonald's has, we'd be in good shape. There is not a McDonald's anywhere in the world that is any different from the one on Michigan Avenue" in Detroit.
"Quality at McDonald's is consistently high. McDonald's probably has the highest quality of any fast-food chain in the world--and they sell the most. I think that's probably what Ford Motor Co. should be long-term," Ford said, "the highest-quality manufacturer in the world with consistently good products all over the world."