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Could Henry Ford Have Dreamed a Jew Would Run His Car Company?

In a company where the top jobs frequently go to graduates of Midwestern engineering schools — or to heirs of the founding family — Mark Fields’s rise to the top of Ford Motor Co. was hardly a sure thing.

But then, in an earlier era, when the Fields family name was Finkelman and the name of the company’s leader was Henry Ford, the odds would have been nil, or worse.

Just as Finkelman became Fields, however, the automaker founded by one of America’s most notorious anti-Semites has transformed itself over the decades. When Ford named Fields as its president and CEO on May 1, the 53-year-old executive became not just the first Jew to run that company, but also the first Jew to head any of the major U.S. automakers.

Said Jeffrey Gurock, a professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University: “I don’t think Henry Ford would have dreamed of a day where a Jew would [be] the head of his motor company. Part of his anti-Semitism was that Jews control but don’t work. He never would have dreamed that there would be a Jew putting people to work in the Ford Motor Company.”

Fields, who was born in Brooklyn and raised in New Jersey, and who graduated from Harvard Business School after a stint at IBM, signed on at Ford in an era when many of his classmates, Jewish and otherwise, were heading for potentially more lucrative jobs on Wall Street. Fields, for some reason, was different.

“I wanted to work for a company that made things,” Fields has been quoted saying over the years. The newly minted CEO said recently that he joined Ford because he liked cars and was impressed with the company’s products, such as the Taurus SHO, a pumped-up, sporty version of the standard sedan of the 1980s.

Field’s predecessor, Alan Mulally, relied heavily on a strategy that Fields drew up as a senior executive in 2005, when Ford’s big North American division was losing money. In fact, between 2005 and 2008, the company posted losses of more than $30 billion. Fields’s plan called for closing factories, laying off thousands of workers and using Ford’s design expertise in Europe to build better cars that could be sold globally. He also has been an advocate within the company for advanced technology and better products.

The company pulled through the crisis, while its two rivals, Chrysler and General Motors, sought bankruptcy protection. Between 2009 and 2013, Ford earned more than $42 billion in profits.

“Every job the company’s ever asked [Fields] to do, he’s done a really good job of it,” William Clay Ford Jr. (known widely as Bill), the company’s current executive chairman — great-grandson and heir to Henry Ford — said at the press conference announcing Fields’s ascension.

Still, in 1989, when Fields joined the manufacturer, Ford Motor Co. was hardly the most obvious choice for an ambitious junior executive from a Jewish background. The company has a history of attracting talented young executives. But despite years of making amends, it also labored under the legacy of its legendary founder.

The founding Ford was known, in particular, for his leadership of The Dearborn Independent, a Michigan-based paper he bought in 1918 and proceeded to fill with rabid anti-Jewish invective, including a 91-part series later bound into a book under Ford’s name, called “The International Jew.” Forcefully distributed to Ford dealerships nationwide throughout the 1920s, Ford’s paper gained an unprecedented readership for anti-Semitism.

“In some places, the dealership would actually put copies of the newspaper in the car, so that when you drove off with your Model T, there you had on the seat next to you a copy of The Dearborn Independent,” said Hasia Diner, a professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies and history at New York University, when interviewed for a biography of Ford in “American Experience,” a series on the Public Broadcasting Service.

Ford also distributed some 500,000 copies of “The International Jew” across America and, with more lethal effect, published it in Europe, as well. Adolf Hitler and other Nazis hailed Ford for his stand, and the Nazi Party distributed his book in translation widely throughout Germany. In 1938, the Nazi regime awarded the automaker the Grand Cross of the German Eagle in recognition of this work.

“As one of the most famous men in America, Henry Ford legitimized ideas that otherwise may have been given little authority,” Diner said.

Henry Ford II, who disliked his grandfather intensely, was the one who moved to make amends in the years after World War II. He developed a close business and personal relationship with Max Fisher, a Detroit-based national Jewish communal leader, businessman and philanthropist, and with Fisher’s encouragement, gave freely to Jewish causes around Detroit. Ford II also made significant gifts to the then-United Jewish Appeal. But it wasn’t until the late 1970s that an executive with a Jewish background, Mervyn Manning, was promoted to the rank of vice president in one of Ford’s subdivisions.

By 1999, Benson Ford Jr., a great-grandson of the auto tycoon, was gaining plaudits for donating a 500-year-old Torah to Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield, Michigan, a Detroit suburb. The Torah was written in hiding between 1492 and 1560 in Spain or Portugal, where it was illegal to practice Judaism at the time.

Fields, who has served as Ford’s chief operating officer since 2012, never hides his Jewish roots, but he does sidestep discussions of his religious background. “Mark prefers not to answer personal questions (about religion). He wants to keep the focus on the company,” Ford spokeswoman Susan Krusel wrote in response to an email query from the Forward requesting to speak with him.

According to Rabbi Jason Miller, the Detroit-based founder of Kosher Michigan, a kosher certification agency, Fields does not have a membership at any synagogue in the Metro Detroit area. But this may be due to the complicated logistics of his family life.

Fields and his wife, who met while both worked at IBM, have two sons. Jane Fields gave up her own career there to relocate with Mark as Ford moved their ambitious executive to company postings around the world. According to knowledgeable sources inside and outside the company, when they returned to Detroit in 2012, Ford’s wife didn’t want to live in Detroit if her husband was going to still be traveling constantly. So Fields’s family today lives in Delray Beach, Fla. In February 2006, Fields paid $4.2 million for a house there on East Seventh Avenue, and a Ford SEC filing notes Fields travels frequently to Miami.

In a short profile of Fields, written for the Detroit Jewish News when he was appointed chief operating officer, Bill Carroll, a former Ford public relations executive, digs deeper into his Jewish roots. According to Carroll, Fields’s grandparents immigrated to America from Russia and Romania, and in America the family name, Finkelman, was changed to Fields. His parents were members of a Conservative synagogue in Paramus, New Jersey, Carroll reported. In an earlier interview, Fields emphasized that he had never experienced any anti-Semitism during his quarter of a century at Ford.

After joining the company in 1989, Fields moved quickly through a succession of jobs in marketing, his field of expertise when he joined, and then international operations. A succession of postings followed in Los Angeles, Argentina, Japan and Europe. According to Carroll, Fields’s mother would send him packages of matzo and Hanukkah candles during his postings around the world to remind him to keep up his Jewishness.

By the time he returned to Ford’s headquarters just outside Detroit in the fall of 2005, Fields had earned high marks for helping to turn around struggling operations in South America and Europe. He had also put Ford’s Japanese partner, Mazda Motor Corporation, back on a solid footing while serving as its CEO in the late 1990s.

These achievements impressed the one executive whose opinion counted the most — the great-grandson of the company’s founder, Bill Ford, who was then both chairman and CEO. Still, in 2006, the Ford heir passed over Fields when he picked Mulally for the CEO slot. Rumors circulated that Fields might take another job, perhaps in another industry. But noting that Mulally was already past 60, Ford convinced Fields to stay. He emerged quickly as Mulally’s heir apparent.

When Mulally decided to retire, Fields was far and away the Ford board of directors favored candidate. “Mark has been Alan’s partner every step of the way,” Bill Ford explained at the press conference announcing his appointment.

Fields said his focus as CEO when he takes over on July 1 will be to make Ford a true global leader in the car business. “This is a business about product first and foremost,” Fields said.

He will face some major challenges in the next few months. Ford, which has roots nurtured by the company’s founder in rural America, is about to launch a new pickup truck that is critical to the company’s profitability. The new model truck represents a major departure from the older models, since it’s made of aluminum rather than the traditional steel. The transition could be difficult, and rivals are watching intently. “I’m not sure aluminum bodies are appropriate for trucks,” Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne observed recently.

Fields will also have to maintain Ford’s profitability and complete a major expansion of Ford’s operations in China, where the company is building four new plants, while nurturing operations in Europe. He also has to decide whether to push ahead with an expansion of Ford’s joint ventures in Russia in the wake of the crisis in the Ukraine.

Next year, Ford’s labor agreement with the United Automobile Workers expires. The company’s hourly workers in the United States haven’t had a raise since 2003, though they have had profit sharing from the turnaround of the company’s North American operation.

Fields’s own new salary as CEO was not immediately available. But, according to Reuters, during his last year at Ford, in 2013, Mulally’s total annual compensation package, including performance bonuses, rose to $23.2 million.

Contact Joseph R. Szczesny at [email protected]

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