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Ford family weighs selling part of controlling stake in car maker

Ford family weighs selling part of controlling stake in car maker
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First Published: Tue, May 15 2007. 12 25 AM IST
Updated: Tue, May 15 2007. 12 25 AM IST
Southfield, Michigan: Members of Ford Motor Co.’s founding family are discussing the sale of part of their controlling stake in the money-losing auto maker, three people with direct knowledge of the talks said.
Chairman Bill Ford briefed directors on family members’ views before the annual shareholders meeting last week in Wilmington, Delaware, one of the people said. At a gathering last month, some family members urged that investment bank Perella Weinberg Partners be hired to advise on a share sale or alternative strategies, the person said.
Ford, the second-largest US auto maker, lost a record $12.6 billion (Rs51,660 crore) last year, and the shares have plunged 74% since 1999. The family owns 71 million Class B shares, extending the power it has held since Henry Ford founded the company in 1903.
“The younger Fords don’t believe the family should be so involved in managing the company since it leads to bad decisions,” said Eugene Jennings, a business professor emeritus at Michigan State University in East Lansing. “The older Fords are saying, ‘You’ve been well taken care of with money tied up in trust funds, so what are you complaining about?”’
The value of the shares has plummeted to $584 million from $2.3 billion since Bill Ford, great-grandson of the founder, became chairman eight years ago. The auto maker eliminated dividends in September, wiping out about $85 million in annual income the family received as recently as 2001, when the shares paid a 30-cent dividend.
“As they cross generations, the Fords have to face the question of whether they can maintain ownership, and whether it’s worth it,” said Peter Pestillo, 69, who retired as Ford’s vice-chairman in 1999.
Disagreements among family members surfaced in July 2006, when they considered whether Bill Ford should continue as chief executive officer, one of the people said. In September, the company hired Alan Mulally, head of Boeing Co.’s commercial-jet business, to succeed Bill Ford as chief executive.
A shareholder proposal to have one class of Ford stock, eliminating the B shares, was on the agenda for the third straight annual meeting last week and drew 27.4% of the vote, the most yet. The company opposed the plan.
Shareholders are “attracted by long-term stability the Class B shareholders provide to the company,” Bill Ford said at the 10 May meeting.
Mulally, 61, declined to comment on the family’s discussions after the meeting. He told reporters the Fords are “very, very supportive of the changes we’re making. They are shareholders, they believe in Ford and want Ford to be successful”.
No shareholder raised the family-control issue at the meeting. Ford spokesman Tom Hoyt would neither confirm nor deny that Bill Ford briefed directors on the family’s discussions, saying the company doesn’t comment on matters before the board.
At the family meeting on 21 April in Dearborn, Michigan, where Ford is based, members including Bill Ford’s sister, Sheila, and her husband, Steven Hamp, supported retaining Perella Weinberg. Hamp is a former chief of staff for Bill Ford.
The idea was rejected after Bill Ford, 50, opposed it, as did his 82-year-old father, William, and his cousin, Edsel Ford II, 58, the person said. William Ford holds 11.1 million Class B shares, or 15.6% of the total. Bill and Edsel Ford are on the company board.
Joseph Perella and Peter Weinberg, principals of the New York investment bank, attended the family meeting, according to the person. Joseph Perella didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.
Plunging value
Ford shares rose 13 cents to $8.37 in New York Stock Exchange composite trading on 11 May. They sold for $32.25 when Bill Ford became chairman on 1 January 1999.
Charles Holleran, Ford’s vice-president for communications, said last week that the family met with investment bankers to learn about their services, not to explore options. He didn’t identify the bankers.
The Detroit News on 8 May reported on the family’s debate over hiring Perella. The company made Hamp available to the newspaper for an interview.
“In a moment of great tension and great volatility in the industry, the members of the family are interested in knowing as much as they can about what is going on in the industry, what the prospects likely will be, what is going to happen,” Hamp told the newspaper.
At the meeting, no family member specifically advocated selling Class-B shares, Hamp told the newspaper. The family also expressed support for Mulally, he said. Hamp told the newspaper he didn’t know if the Fords will hire their own investment banker. They decided not to hire Perella now to avoid being seen as lacking faith in Mulally, the newspaper said. “There’s no reason to think that any change in the ownership structure needs to take place,” Bill Ford said in an October television interview in Beijing.
Family members considering a share sale cite Ford’s rejection of a proposed venture with Nissan Motor Co. last year as an example of how their influence may hurt the company, one of the people said. Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan and Renault SA, proposed an equity alliance if the Ford family ceded control, people familiar with the matter said at the time.
Ford’s ownership structure has nothing to do with its ability to enter into alliances with other auto makers, spokesman Holleran said. A decision by the family to reduce its influence wouldn’t be enough to return the auto maker to profit, said John Casesa, managing partner of New York-based consultant Casesa Shapiro Group Llc.
Ford is in its 12th straight year of decline in US market share. Much of Ford’s record 2006 loss included expenses to close plants and shed 40,000 jobs in North America.
If the Fords step back, Mulally may have a freer hand in reviving the company, said Yvan de la Fressange, who manages $140 million in the Gutzwiller One fund, including 300,000 Ford shares, in Basel, Switzerland. “It could be a positive for the company for the family to have less control,” he said. “The Ford family is quite large and has split opinions. Some are panicking and saying ‘it’s over,’ and some have confidence.”
Alan Katz in Paris contributed to this story.
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First Published: Tue, May 15 2007. 12 25 AM IST
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