Bill Ford at Web Summit: Keeping up with the pace of change

Ford
Rachael Power
Small Business Editor
Sift Media
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Everyone the world over will be familiar with the 112-year-old Ford brand and story.

As a company still thriving today, it’s gone through many cultural and technological changes, and as executive chairman Bill Ford Jr tells the audience at Web Summit, it’s still adapting.

The company’s now got its sights set on being a ‘mobility solutions’ firm instead of an automotive one. Instead of simply producing cars, it sets out to address the global problem of mobility and even works in developing countries, such as India and African countries, to map uncharted areas.  

Recently, there’s been a lot of movement in the automotive industry, a relatively quiet sector previously. First, we’ve had connected cars which sync to people’s mobiles and devices; now driverless cars. Next? We may be looking at a Google or an Apple car.

A changing world

“Really if you take a step back, any company only exists to make people’s lives better and if it’s not doing that it probably doesn’t deserve to exist.

“There’s this global gridlock and mobility is becoming a real problem. People were looking at rising GDPs around the world saything, ‘this is fantastic, we’re going to sell x more vehicles and I said; 'really?' How and where are they going to go?” Ford says.

At the end of this century there’s predicted to be seven to nine billion people and mobility problems are going to be exasberated, “unless we can radically change what it meant to be mobile,” Ford says.

The company that’s going to win the most in this race to develop a solution to the problem is one that can combine data collection with connected cars and ownership of vehicles while making the customers’ lives easier.

Partnerships will be key

Inevitably, this is going to mean partnerships with the big tech companies, Ford says. “It’s going to happen anyway and we’d like it to happen with us. Our business model will change and will have to change. We will have a foot on each rung because we have to make cars and trucks today, but we also have to manage the future of transportation as a service.”

Using transportation to solve problems is something it’s putting into experimentation in India, sending SUVs to rural areas that aren’t well mapped and transporting expectant mothers to urban hospitals and monitoring them there. It’s doing something similar in Africa.

Ford also recognises the importance of partnering with startups.

“Traditionally big companies and startups are like two ships passing in the night. So, we have spent a long time establishing a large Silicon Valley lab and office to enable startups to find us and we’re doing this around the world.

“We’re going to need partnerships with large tech companies and startups. I started my own venture capital firm several years ago to invest in mobility solutions at a time when people didn’t know what mobility was.

Ford tells the audience that five years ago there was “almost no” startup activity in the automotive space but now there’s tremendous activity and venture capital interest.  

Ford also works with TechStars, based in Detroit, mentoring companies and showing them how to scale their ideas which he finds “wildly exciting”.

Remain customer focused

The industry has been revolution resistant for over 100 years, Ford adds, saying it’s about time it got shaken up. He says he thinks it’s “awesome”.  But, he adds, don’t forget there’s a customer at the end of it all.

“I think that the most important thing for a company like ours is to remain curious and be incredibly open minded and really understand these things are happening with or without us and we want to find a way to have it happen with us and with us to enhance people’s lives.

“Today a lot of businesses don’t attach to the customer very often. What if we could touch them in a way they found made their lives easier and more frequently? At the end of the day, don’t forget there’s a customer at the end of this who just wants their life to work and be enjoyable,” Ford says.

Have a great culture

And in today’s world it’s more important than ever to have a culture of transparency.

“I can only speak for Ford but it’s very important to have a culture that rewards transparency. If you do identify a problem deal with it quickly and openly and set an example. No company is perfect, we’re not. My goodness, we can’t be,” he says.

His parting words about the future were that the pace of change and disruption are going to be so much higher than we currently think.

“But there’s one caveat; we can’t make people’s lives more complicated because the technology we have is dazzling and is going to become more so but we have to present it in a way that’s thoughtful.”

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