What a difference a decade makes.
Ford Motor Co., not so long ago the target of angry and disappointed environmentalists, is now the "greenest" company on the planet, according to Interbrand's annual list of the 50 Best Global Green Brands.
No one dreamed of such a development back in 2004, when the environmental movement collectively rose up to decry the failures of its great automotive hope, Sierra Club member Bill Ford Jr., then chairman and CEO of Ford Motor Co.
Protesters in more than 40 cities staged an "International Day of Intervention." They expressed outrage over Bill Ford's unfilled promise to improve dramatically fuel economy across Ford's fleet.
Even as Ford Motor was launching the world's first gasoline-electric hybrid sport-utility vehicle, the Escape Hybrid, the Sierra Club, Bluewater Network and Rainforest Action Network were taking direct aim at the auto maker and its CEO.
"Our sole focus is Ford," Bluewater founder Russell Long said in late 2004. "The No. 1 reason (is) Mr. Ford made all those pledges" to improve fuel economy, then the company retreated from its publicized goal of improving its SUV fuel economy by 25 per cent over five years.
Brendan Bell of the Sierra Club's Washington, D.C.-based global warming program, at the time said Bill Ford was in his organization's crosshairs because the family scion had and still does possess a long-stated interest in the environment.
"Bill Ford's name goes on every car they sell," Bell told Automotive News. "Americans understand it's his company, and Bill Ford has said we need to address (environmental issues)."
Jennifer Krill of the Rainforest Action Network, said, "People expect more from Ford (Motor) because of the company's history of innovation."
Between then and now, Ford Motor barely dodged the bankruptcy bullet. Barely. If Alan Mulally, the CEO Bill Ford personally brought on board in 2006, had not led a complete overhaul of the auto company, using $23.6-billion (all figures in U.S. dollars) borrowed on the eve of the 2008-2009 economic collapse, Ford Motor would not even exist – not as we know it, anyway. And Bill Ford most assuredly would be out of a job.
Today, I expect that in a private moment, perhaps with friends and family, the very-private Bill Ford is quietly celebrating enjoying a decade of change. The years have validated him as not only a corporate leader of some import, but also as a businessman who takes far more than a casual interest in environmental matters.
Ford Motor is immensely profitable, forecasting pretax earnings of between $7-billion and $8-billion for the full year, down from $8.6-billion in 2013. On the environmental front, and at least as important profits to the Bill Ford I have interviewed, Ford Motor has just been named to the No. 1 spot on Interbrand's annual list of the 50 Best Global Green Brands. Ford was second on the list in 2013 and 15th in 2012.
So Ford in 2014 is perceived as not just the greenest auto maker in the world, but the greenest company, period.
"Over the past few years, Ford has proven to be a sustainability leader," noted Jez Frampton, Interbrand's Global Chief Executive Officer, in a release. "Sustainability is fully integrated into Ford's overall business strategy."
Interbrand asks consumers to determine how they perceive corporate brands in terms of sustainable or green practices. That material is then compared to environmental or sustainability performance data collected and analyzed by Deloitte Consulting LLP.
So 10 years after, Ford has answered its fiercest, harshest critics. The Ford brand, arguably, does not yet enjoy the same "green" halo as Toyota Motor, the global leader in hybrid vehicles, but clearly the Dearborn, Mich., car company is making serious and noteworthy progress.
In Ford's latest Sustainability Report, Bill Ford reiterates the company "commitment to leading fuel economy," highlighting its EcoBoost engines which use turbocharging and direct injection to deliver up to 20 per cent better fuel economy for those drivers who monitor their lead foot. Ford now offers EcoBoost in 18 North American nameplates in 2014, up from 11 in 2012. Ford also sells six electrified vehicles, including the Ford Focus EV, and Ford sold about 85,000 hybrids, plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles in 2013.
Yes, 85,000 is a tiny number compared to the 6.3 million vehicles Ford Motors sold around the globe last year. Ford's cleanest models are almost insignificant in the total.
That said, Ford has made huge progress in improving fuel efficiency and reducing emissions – as have many of the company's rivals. The Interbrand report, however, suggests that Ford is perceived to be doing a better job on the green front than other car companies.
And that surely was not the case back in 2004 when environmentalists were swarming the company and personally attacking Bill Ford.