What Drives Her: Elena Ford, Breaking the Glass Ceiling in the Family Business

Elena Ford

As the highest ranking female Ford family member in the company, she’s focused on one thing: You.

Walking into the Ford exhibit at the Detroit Auto Show, a huge smile lights up Elena Ford’s face. The space is bright and vibrant and there’s a buzz in the air. The buzz can be heard and felt throughout the entire auto show: there’s excitement over at the Ford stand.

It’s not just that there’s excitement at Ford that makes Elena smile.

It’s not just that Ford is on a hot streak with sales, innovation and technology.

It’s not just that Elena is blazing a path as the first woman in the Ford family to take a high-level role in running the company (she was appointed to vice president in 2013).

It’s that her mission, and her passion, as vp of Ford Global Dealer and Consumer Experience is to create a flawless customer experience, and this is the culmination of everything Ford is doing.

Elena wants you to love Ford as much as she does, so every thing she does is all about you. And that makes Elena smile.

An heiress on both sides, but centered in her focus

“I love working, I love cars,” says Elena, whose heritage could certainly have been a distraction. As the granddaughter of longtime Ford CEO Henry Ford II and the great, great granddaughter of company founder Henry Ford, she could have easily followed the path of so many heiresses, squabbling over and squandering the inheritance. As a daughter of Greek shipping billionaire Stavros Niarchos, she had double the opportunity.

But a sense of obligation to the heritage seems to be a Ford family trait; a devotion to curiosity and innovation that, whether it’s nature or nurture, was either inherited from or inspired by Henry Ford. Many Ford family members have shepherded the business over the years, and currently Elena’s cousin Bill holds the role of executive chairman. But family businesses are demanding. “You have to make a commitment to it, and I want to see Ford succeed,” Elena said.

Taking a role in the family business

Elena Ford Shows Off The Contextual Ford Exhibit: From Paddle Boards To Sports Accessories, The Mission Is To Showcase The Lifestyle That Ford'S Cars And Trucks Enable; Photo: Scotty Reiss

Elena Ford shows off the redesigned Ford exhibit: From paddle boards to sports accessories, the mission is to showcase the lifestyle that Ford’s cars and trucks enable; Photo: Scotty Reiss

That she chose to pursue the family business was a departure, though. “I think I have gasoline in my veins,” Elena says, using a phrase common in Detroit. “I’ve had a Mustang since I was very young.” But her mother, Charlotte, took a different path, starting off as a designer and author and eventually becoming a professor of library science. Her aunt Anne is a noted author and served as the chairwoman for the National Center for Learning Disabilities for more than a decade.

Elena began her career in New York at the advertising agency Wells Rich Greene, started by another famous game-changing woman, Mary Wells, once the highest paid ad executive in the business. At WRG, which at one point had a small portion of Ford’s ad account, Elena started in the new business department, learning strategy, how ad agencies work and what clients expect. After three years she went back to Ford’s headquarters in Dearborn working in truck and motor sport advertising.

The experience at WRG and in Ford’s advertising department set Elena apart from other long-time automotive execs: Her viewpoint was human, not engineering.

Taking the human view in an engineering-driven business

Elena Ford

Ford Pass phone app gives users new mobility options, from finding parking spots to arranging rides; Photo: Scotty Reiss

This perspective gave Elena the insight to take on customer experience. After all, even the best designed and built cars in the world are lost if they don’t connect with their customers.

When it comes to consumer experience, “we are about innovation, we want to deliver the experience that customers love,” she said. “We looked at automotive retailing and see how people feel, the emotional highs and lows of the process, and mapped it against brands that do a good job.”

And what do customers want most?

“Control,” says Elena. “It’s like when you walk through a department store and decline to be sprayed with perfume. You let them understand that you are in control.” Customers at car dealerships want to be in control, too. “Ninety percent of people do their research before the going in” to a dealership, she says. “They know what they want; this puts the onus on the dealer to show the customer what they are asking for.”

The real challenge: creating the dealer-customer connection

And that’s where the real challenge is: getting Ford’s 10,000 dealers, 400,000 dealer employees and 200,000 corporate employees to focus on that make-or-break singular customer moment.

“You have to bring people along with you,” says Elena. “It’s important to think in a thoughtful way” about how to accomplish this. The opportunity is great, though. “When you build a digital, physical and personal” business, you have the opportunity to bring “information technology, product development, human resources, the whole company with you.”

Diversity of people and ideas: The key to the future

Elena Ford

The Ford Explorer’s massaging front seats on display, and there for guests to use, at the Detroit Auto Show; Photo: Scotty Reiss

“We are an auto and mobility company, as Mark [Fields, Ford’s CEO] said; we want people who are innovative and forward thinking, people who want to bring ideas and also want to learn. Progressive people, women, multicultural, diverse.”

This diversity of cultures and ideas is yielding nice results. Elena and her team just introduced the latest innovation, the Ford Pass program, which offers all sorts of functions for users–for current and prospective Ford owners– such as finding parking to ride sharing to earning rewards.

The goal of Ford Pass, and in everything that Elena touches, is to bring the customer closer to the ideal Ford experience. “Rather than when you come in and purchase a car,” she says, “and just meeting the sales person, you are introduced to the service department.” Elena wants customers to have a relationship with the entire dealership, not just sales; she’s working with dealers to help them bridge this relationship and also, help customers after the sale. “There’s a lot of material to communicate,” she says. The goal is to give consumers more tools, like Ford Pass and the company’s beacon technology, which lets customers point a smart phone at a new model and get instant information about the car.

Reimagining the auto show exhibit: Cars come to life

Back in the Ford stand Elena shows me the newly re-designed exhibit, designed to put Ford’s models into the context of customers lives. “This was all in a million pieces in a warehouse last week,” she says. The auto show team assembled it there to ensure that everything fit together according to plan and that all the moving parts worked.

There are cars, of course. But it’s how the cars are staged: The Explorer, which Elena drives (“I have six kids,” she says. “I have to have a big car!”), has a kayak strapped to the roof. The Focus sports a surfboard. The Escape is framed by paddle boards and snowboards. The F150 Raptor is on a hydraulic lift so you can see underneath it. The Explorer’s Platinum edition front seats are a display of their own, inviting guests to sit for a minute and enjoy a massage. Display cases along the back wall and around the exhibit hold very cool Ford branded merchandise, from shirts and hats to sports accessories, all of it for sale. Ford designed, ordered and stocked the merchandise, Elena explained, so that auto show visitors could actually take a bit of Ford home with them from the show. Auto show product specialists can ring them right up on the show floor.

The vibrancy of the Ford exhibit is a long way from car show displays of just a few years ago. The excitement flows out into the rest of the car show, drawing people in to the Ford experience and showcasing what it’s like to be a Ford owner. Elena Ford has good reason to smile.

Journalist, entrepreneur and mom. Expertise includes new cars, family cars, 3-row SUVs, child passenger car seats and automotive careers... More about Scotty Reiss