Ford's leader aims to equate industrial with sustainable

Can Henry Ford's great grandson use sustainable thinking to propel Ford back to No. 1?

How many people reading this blog can say they posted a 33 percent increase in sales (at least unit-wise) last year? I now know of at least one candidate: Ford Motor Co.'s executive vice chairman, Bill Ford.

And according to a new interview posted with him in McKinsey Quarterly, thinking about sustainability and sticking with those principles when no one else was a believer played a big role in those impressive results. As did sticking to his guns when it came to research and development funds for hybrid technologies.

In the McKinsey Q&A (which was conducted BEFORE Ford announced its results earlier this month), Ford dates his sustainable and environmental leanings back to his college days. He tells the interviewers:

"When I joined the board, in 1988, I was told that I couldn't have any environmental leanings. I completely disregarded that. Someone had to build a bridge between the environmental community and the business community—which, that that era, all through the '90s, were very much polarized. I think I was the first executive ever to speak at a Greenpeace business conference, in London in 2001. That didn't play well here at Ford, but I thought it was an important signal to send internally."

I'll bet the product designers are secretly rejoicing that decision now. In a year in which hybrid sales fell around 11 percent, Ford reported a 67 percent sales increase in the category. Mind you, it was coming from a different place than leader Toyota, but the automaker built some serious mindshare in 2009.

Ford also is doing things like turning the paint fumes from one of its facilities into energy, and planting grass on some of its plant roofs. "A lot of these things were big cost savers, as well as the right thing to do for the environment," Ford tells the McKinsey interviewers.

Ford, like a lot of other business leaders, still struggles with the term "sustainability" and internally his management team downplays it. I can still see some of them shuddering in dark corners. But that doesn't mean the spirit of sustainability isn't on their minds every single minute of every single day. Which is what Bill Ford believes it will take to make it work and for companies like Ford to start changing the meaning of the term "industrial."

"It is impossible to find a strong global economic power that does not have a strong industrial base. Now, can the definition of industrial change? It has to. It can't mean old smokestack industries. It really is about the application of new technology to modernize those old industries and also about investment in new technologies, such as alternative energy. But we can't as a nation continue to be oblivious to the fact that our industrial base needs some help."

Could sustainability strategy give U.S. manufacturers a new perspective? Certainly not all of them can make this transition, but when we look back a decade from now, I'd be willing to lay money that 2009 will mark a turning point in how this nation handles our industrial legacy.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com