When Henry Ford II stepped down as CEO of Ford Motor Company in 1979, he had been head of a major corporation longer than any other individual in the history of American industry—a testimony to the energy and endurance with which he had committed himself to the company.
Born in 1917, Henry Ford II was the eldest son of Edsel Ford and Eleanor Clay Ford and the eldest grandson of Henry Ford. Henry II’s childhood was intimately intertwined with the automobile business. As a young man, he continued the family tradition of hands-on learning, gaining practical mechanical skills in his first jobs with the company.
When the United States entered World War II in 1941, Henry II resigned from the company to join the Naval Reserve. But when his father, Edsel Ford, died in 1943, Henry was dismissed from active duty so that he could return to the company to aid the war effort.
When Henry Ford retired in 1945, he recommended that Henry II succeed him. Henry II was young—only 28—but he proved from the start that he had the authority to run the company and hold his own.
Henry Ford II proved to be the ideal individual to lead the company in its transition from a family business to a modern, publicly owned corporation. In much the same manner as his grandfather had faced problems at the company's beginning, Henry Ford II tackled the job of building an automobile company all over again.
Henry II’s postwar reorganization and expansion plan rapidly restored the company's health. It was under the leadership of Henry Ford II that in January 1956, the company took a decisive step forward when it went public. In what was believed at the time to be the largest stock issue ever offered, 10.2 million shares of Ford Motor Company were offered for sale to the public through underwriters.
Henry Ford II took a cue from his grandfather in expanding Ford Motor Company's international reach. In early 1948, as Europe's growth began to pick up following the war, Henry II traveled to Europe to investigate prospects for postwar expansion. He recognized, earlier than many in American businesses, that the European automotive industry was rapidly catching up to America.
Henry Ford II’s keen perception of political and economic trends led to the establishment of Ford Motor Company of Europe in 1967, 20 years ahead of the European Economic Community's arrival. The organization of the company's European operations into the International Division proved crucial for efficient coordination between U.S. operations and international subsidiaries.
The company established its North American Automotive Operations in 1971, consolidating U.S., Canadian and Mexican operations more than two decades ahead of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Henry Ford II anticipated other political and economic changes that were transforming nations and entire continents. For example, with his strong support, the company moved quickly to renew operations in Spain in the 1970s, establishing a Spanish company and manufacturing facilities. The move was well-timed, and well ahead of the competition.
Henry Ford II reiterated his grandfather's equal employment policies, predating federal civil rights legislation. In 1968, he demonstrated Ford Motor Company's commitment to social responsibility by expanding minority employment and creating minority dealer and supplier development programs.
The oil embargoes of the mid and late '70s caused gasoline prices to skyrocket. American buyers wanted small, fuel-efficient cars, and the Japanese had the best. When the American worker was being vilified for producing poor quality vehicles, Henry Ford II said, "There is no such thing as a bad employee, only bad managers." The company's leadership accepted responsibility, and Ford Motor Company was the first American automaker to make quality its "number one operating priority."
Henry Ford II provided strong leadership for Ford Motor Company from the postwar era into the 1980s. He was president from 1945 until 1960 and chief executive officer from 1945 until 1979. He was chairman of the board of directors from 1960 until 1980, and remained as chairman of the finance committee from 1980 until his death in 1987.
Henry Ford II's leadership truly revitalized Ford Motor Company with modern engineering, manufacturing, assembly and distribution facilities in the United States and 22 foreign countries.