Sunday was a solemn day for the Ford family, and Ford Motor Company associates all around the world. Utah residents who follow the Ford fortune have most likely read the story headlining the news. Henry Ford’s last surviving grandchild, William Clay Ford, died in his home in Grosse Point, Michigan from pneumonia. Ford represented the automaker’s last direct link to the days when the company belonged solely to the Ford Family, although he was overshadowed by older brother Henry II and never got the chance to run the business. William Clay Ford was the company’s largest shareholder, and last member of the Ford family to be Henry Ford’s confidant. It is well known that Henry Ford is an American legend who made the automobile massively accessible from New York to Utah, Montana to Texas, and later abroad.
Over the years, the Ford family members retained 40 percent of voting power under company bylaws, even as the proportion of their common stock slid to less than 2 percent. As vice chairman of Ford, and leader of powerful board committees, Mr. Ford provided stewardship over the family’s interest. He was appointed to the Ford board as a student at Yale, joining the company after he graduated in 1949. He headed the group that came up with the new edition of the Lincoln Continental, a luxury car of 1952 that was so elegant it was displayed at the Museum of Modern Art.
It was Ford’s older brother, Henry II, whom the elder Henry Ford chose as successor. While this may not have directly affected Ford owners, Utah fans of the automaker were left debating a possible rivalry. Henry II was named president of Ford in 1945, and he quickly became known for effective management and jet-setting. William was asked by the New York Times Magazine what he thought about his brother’s “cosmopolitan crowd”. He stated that they were “not his cup of tea.” In 1976, Henry II was slowed by a heart ailment. He began planning his succession by expanding the office of chief executive and brining William onto the team. He also made William the chairman of the board’s executive committee. Despite this appointment, Henry II picked Philip Caldwell to be chief executive replacement in 1980, becoming the first person from outside the family to run Ford. William’s consolation prize was the company’s vice chairman title. A proud Utah Ford owner would no doubt question Henry II’s decision to choose a non-relative, regardless of the effectiveness of the employee.
In addition to his position, Mr. Ford bought control of the NFL’s Detroit Lions in 1964 for $6 million. At the time, this was the largest cash price paid for a sports team. The Lion’s assets, stocks and bonds were valued at $1.5 million. In 2013, Forbes magazine estimated the value of the franchise at $900 million. Mr. Ford was vice chairman of Ford from 1980-1989, leading Ford’s powerful finance committee from 1987-1995. He retired in 2005 after 57 years on the board. His last success was helping son William Jr. to be named Ford’s chairman in 2002.
Brittany Lemmon is a creative writer for Fusion 360 in Salt Lake City.