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Ford Motor Chair Bill Ford on Automaker's Stock Rally, SPACs and Investors

Michael Wayland | CNBC
  • After a decade of mediocrity, Ford shares remain lower than competitors but are up by about 50% this year and on pace for their best performance since 2009.
  • The gains are led by a new turnaround plan as well as the company's new electric vehicle introductions.

DETROIT – After a decade of mediocrity, Ford Motor shares are up by nearly 50% this year and on pace for their best annual performance since 2009.

Investors like the new turnaround plan from CEO Jim Farley called Ford+ that aims to better position the automaker to build electric and autonomous vehicles as well as to generate recurring revenue. Thus far, electric vehicle introductions from Ford such as the Mustang Mach-E and upcoming Ford F-150 Lightning have been well-received by investors.

Ford Chair Bill Ford says the company plans to keep the momentum going into 2022 and beyond, despite an ongoing global shortage of semiconductor chips causing production disruptions.

"When we came out with the Mustang Mach-E and then the F-150 Lightning, I think it really surprised a lot of people. Not just the fact that we came out with those vehicles but frankly how good they were," he told CNBC. "I think you're starting to see that in the investor base. Really, that's the tip of the iceberg though."

Ford, whose great-grandfather Henry Ford founded the automaker, sat down recently with CNBC to discuss the company's stock rally, turnaround plan as well as special purpose acquisition companies and retail investors. Here are some highlights of that interview.

Dividend

Ford said reinstating the company's coveted dividend, which was cut in March 2020, is "quite prominent" on its to-do list, but he wouldn't say when. Ford, chair since 1999, and other company executives have said it needs to be the right time, as the industry continues to work through the Covid-19 pandemic and a global shortage of semiconductor chips.

"We're looking at doing it as soon as we possibly can," he said. "We have a very large portion of employee and retiree ownership, and they care deeply about the dividend as well."

The quarterly dividend was last at 15 cents a share. It was suspended at the beginning of the pandemic to shore up the company's cash as the pandemic caused rolling shutdowns of auto plants globally.

Ford's crosstown rival, General Motors, hasn't reinstated its dividend either. GM cut it in April 2020.

More upside

Ford said he doesn't know if all of the company's emerging initiatives under the Ford+ plan are reflected in its current stock price, but he said investors are beginning to take notice.

"Clearly, I think investors understand that there's true change under foot, and that Ford is going to be a major player in that change," he said. Later adding, Ford's underlying business is "very strong" and the rate of change is more than any other time in his more than 40 years with the automaker.

The company plans to shift focus to a more recurring revenue model under the plan, led by connected vehicle services and a focus on fleet customers, among other things. It's something every automaker is attempting to do, as the industry invests billions in new technologies such as electric and autonomous vehicles.

Preferred shares

The Ford family essentially controls the company through Class B preferred shares that give them 40% of shareholder voting rights. It's a system that has been in place since the company went public in 1956, but one that not all investors believe should continue.

That system has faced numerous shareholder challenges. At this year's shareholder meeting, 36.3% of voters supported a system that gave every share an equal vote, slightly higher than the 35.3% average since 2013.

Ford maintains support for the dual share structure, saying it has been a "very positive thing" for the company. He said it allows Ford to concentrate more on the long-term and not be another "nameless, faceless corporation." He cited the family's control in helping it avoid bankruptcy during the Great Recession, unlike GM and then-Chrysler, now known as Stellantis.

"We're not a nameless faceless corporation, and people know that there's a family, and in my case an individual, who's going to be there through thick and thin, won't take a golden parachute and bail out, and cares deeply about the company," he said.

Ford board members

Ford, 64, has no plans of stepping down from the company's board for the foreseeable future, even as a younger generation of family members join the board. His daughter, Alexandra Ford English, and nephew, Henry Ford III, were both elected to the company's board in May.

Ford, who joined the board in 1988, said the time was right for the two to become directors and learn the ropes. He said being on the board as a young executive with his father as well as his cousin, Edsel Ford II, who stepped down from the board earlier this year, provided a lot of value.

"I wanted to provide the same kind of mentorship for them as they go forward and start to carry the torch for the Ford family," he said.

SPACs

Ford, a co-founder and partner of mobility capital venture firm Fontinalis Partners, said he's not sure if SPACs are a flash in the pan or here to stay. "I guess time will tell, but clearly, it's another avenue to liquidity that we didn't have a short time ago."

Ford said a lot of companies that Fontinalis is involved in are exploring SPAC deals, while others continue to pursue more traditional IPOs.

Fontinalis was founded in 2009. It is focused on emerging mobility companies. Investments have included Lyft, Postmates and lidar company Ouster. Ford said he co-founded the firm because he believed such mobility companies would play key roles in the future of transportation.

Retail investors

Whether Ford investors are institutional or retail, Ford said he wants them to be long-term owners of the stock.

"What we really like is, at least, I'll speak personally, are long term investors who want to be with us on the journey that we're going on," he said. "And if they're retail investors or institutional mean, either way, that's great."

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