Power Is The Prize

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Significantly, Capizzi adds that the only information he got concerning Henry Ford’s wishes came from Bennett; he never talked with Ford himself on the subject. It is also his recollection “that Mr. Bennett finally persuaded Mr. Ford to step in and become president of the company in order to assure his (Bennett’s) position of power.” However this may be, it was Bennett who asked Capizzi to proceed with the codicil. Of course he did this—the family knowing nothing of the matter. Of the nature of the codicil, whatever the circumstances, there is no question whatever. It nullified the foundation plan by creating a trust, under which the Ford Motor Company was to be controlled by a board named by Henry Ford for ten years after his death. None of the grandchildren appears in the list of trustees later set down by Bennett. Although Capizzi believes that the codicil named no secretary of the board, Bennett explicitly declares that he was to hold that position of special power.

One heartening fact was that the women of the Ford family were now playing a determined role in the drama. Edsel’s wife had not watched her husband’s years of suffering, and heard his anguished denunciations of Bennett, without resolving that her sons’ rights should be respected until they could take full management. Clara, as close observers noted, had been expostulating with Henry, denouncing Bennett as persecutor of her son and evil genius of the plant and taking Mrs. Edsel Ford’s side in insisting that the grandsons be trained for control. Both were women of character, whose self-assertion now counted.

Another encouraging element in the situation was the government’s active interest. As the war reached its crisis, Washington had no intention of letting the tremendous production energies of the Rouge and Willow Run be crippled. President Roosevelt and the war production chiefs wished to see Henry Ford set aside by able, earnest, trustworthy men. But could such men gain control in time?

On June 1, 1943, the stockholders held a meeting, with Henry Ford and his grandsons Henry II and Benson present. This meeting re-elected the three Fords and Sorensen as directors, and chose Mrs. Edsel Ford, Mead L. Bricker, Harry Bennett, Ray R. Rausch, and B. J. Craig as new members of the board. Later that day the board elected the elder Henry Ford president, and Sorensen, vice president. This, in view of Henry Ford’s age, was a makeshift arrangement which Sorensen, who states that he wished to see Henry II chosen president, regarded as absurd. It might have proved worse than absurd, for as Bennett reached for enhanced power, he would feel able to count on the support of the elder Ford, Rausch, and Craig.

When Secretary Knox approved the release of Henry Ford II from the Navy to the Rouge plant in the hot August days of 1943, Detroit observers were betting that the young man would encounter the same frustrations that Edsel had met, that the atmosphere of plot, counterplot, and general apprehension would paralyze his good intentions, and that he would probably not have the fortitude to stick to his post and win control. The situation would have confused anybody.

Legal authority, to be sure, rested with the board of directors, but Bennett tells us that its meetings were meaningless when Henry Ford did not attend, and farcical when he did. “Mr. Ford would come in, walk around, shake hands with everyone, and then say, ‘Come on, Harry, let’s get the hell out of here. We’ll probably change everything they do, anyway.’ ” Young Henry, for the moment powerless, had to feel his way cautiously. When later he was asked about the extent to which his father and grandfather had talked to him about plant affairs, he replied significantly that he had talked with his father. He went on: “It may have been in 1941 or a little earlier I told him that things were in a mess, and that it would have to be cleaned up.” Edsel, then profoundly discouraged, merely replied that it couldn’t be done!

“…she now began to act decisively in her husband’s name, and it was high time she did.”

Although Henry II said that his brother Benson knew more about the Rouge than he did, he by no means returned to the company in ignorance of its condition. He had seen enough of the factory before his enlistment to know its routines. Then, while attending the Naval Training School at Lake Forest, Illinois, he had taken time to follow the principal Ford developments in detail. He had requested Sorensen’s secretary, Russell Gnau, to supply not only regular operational reports but news of everything he heard and observed.

Henry II had used a short leave to visit the Rouge plant on June 4, 1943, and Russell Gnau had promptly set down a report on the call for Harry Bennett, who had been busy with some navy officers. Again the young man had shown how closely he was following the business. When Gnau remarked that he must have stirred up the management when he complained that the company was making no money, Henry II replied that the average of the profits over the past ten years had been far below Chrysler’s. The two had talked about current operations, turnover, and the long lag between shipments and receipt of payments. Gnau then showed him detailed material on bomber construction at Willow Run and the assemblies at the Rouge, the Lincoln plant, and elsewhere, inquiring whether he had received the facts before.