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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
8 Feb 2002
The Renewal of Forde

A parody of novelty

Forde was once a proud company. Based on the mission and vision of their founder, dedicated men and women built a small, garage-based business into a successful international enterprise known for its quality and excellence. A Forde car was more than just another means of transportation, it was a undeniably something special and every Forde employee and customer believed that with every fiber of his being.

But, as the phrase goes, times have changed. All is not well with the once-strong company as it struggles with continually plummeting sales figures and morale. Customers are leaving, employees are quitting and plants are closing. What once was a staple of society is becoming merely a memory of a time now past, removed far more than the years reveal.

In order to understand what this company is and where it's going, it is necessary to examine its past - to chronicle those circumstances which have led to what can only be described as a crisis. For it is only by honestly examining this history that we can truly evaluate the present, and come to a point of hope for an achievable future. This is the story of the Forde Motor Company.

The glory days

When Forde can onto the scene, it was like nothing anyone had ever seen. Sure there were other rudimentary forms of transportation but none could compare to a Forde. Those privileged enough to be around when the first Fordes rolled off the line knew the world would never be the same. For this was one of those events which everything that came before would be seen as leading up to, and everything to come thereafter judged in light of.

From the very start, it was the people that set this company apart. Every single employee and customer knew what a special thing it was to be a Forde owner, and they set out to convince the world. This message spread quickly as entire towns and villages would become Forde owners overnight thanks to the inspired salesmen who would expand into new markets. The message was very simple - Forde makes the best car around; there is no alternative. A Forde car is a thing of value and must be constantly cared for and protected.

As it was destined, the company would continue grow and grow, expanding to new towns, new countries and new continents. Colossal office buildings, dealerships and showrooms were built all over the globe. The greatest thinkers and designers would go to work for Forde, lending their talents in support of this extraordinary company.

Where did things go wrong?

As with any company, Forde would eventually become influenced by other businesses and organizations, not to mention society on the whole. The world was changing and some Forde employees saw the need to change with it. These individuals became known as "renewalists" - men who would work within the company to alter it towards their ways. For many years, their struggles would be in vain as those much wiser saw the danger in the novel renewalist strategies. These corporate defenders who would later became known as "classicalists" understood that the Forde way of doing things was not becoming obsolete and old-fashioned but was the best and only way to run the business. To them, the renewalists represented a clear threat to the future of the company.

So for some time, the renewalists were kept in check. Forde's CEO consistently subscribed to classicalist views and would take steps to lessen the influence of the renewalists, many of which were fired or demoted or sent to run used car lots in Yemen. But that would all change with the rise of a CEO sympathetic to the renewalist ideas. When he took over the company, they who once lived and worked in fear and deception now saw a ray of hope - a ray which grew to blinding proportions when the CEO decided to call a company-wide conference to discuss Forde's future. This conference was the largest such event in company history and was dubbed the "Forde Renewal Conference."

The renewalists recognized the opportunity before them to influence the outcome of such a conference. By focusing their efforts on bending the ear of certain key executives known to be sympathizers, the renewalists were able to use them to establish credibility and convince the others. Renewalist consultants were brought in and given a disproportionate degree of respect and deference by those in the upper management.

The outcome of the conference could best be described as "ambiguous". While there was much talk and language about maintaining the practices of old that built Forde into what it is today, there were also documents and business plans that seemed to express new ideas and novelties of which the company had previously been wary. Because of the sometimes unclear and ambiguous nature of some of these plans, it was difficult for the classicalists to make a strong case that the novelists had infected the company with their ideas. Many would dismiss their concerns based on disclaimers found throughout the plans, but it would soon become clear that the "spirit" of the conference or varying interpretations of its plans would have more of an influence on the company's direction than what was actually written.

What has happened since

Dedicated customers anxiously awaited news from the conference, some sharing the renewalists excitement for a new corporate orientation and others just curious as to what had happened and what was to be the result. The three most visible results would take place almost immediately. These were a change in the weekly gatherings, new advertising messages and the emergence of the radicalists.

The nature and pace of the changes in the weekly gatherings took many customers (particularly older ones) by surprise. Gone were the civil, respectful gatherings of individuals peacefully working on their cars and led by a company representative who helped each individual with his particular problems. The new gatherings were closer to parties and rock concerts. There would be BBQ festivities with drinking, dancing and every sort of wild behavior. No longer could a customer change their oil in peace without someone coming by and wanting to offer them a drink or shake their hand. Even the company representative seemed less interested in offering assistance than putting on a performance and providing entertainment.

Worse yet, sometimes these parties would feature demolition derbies and drag races. Customers who previously treasured their Fordes above all else were now willing to subject them to the most horrifying treatment. Some felt if their car were to be destroyed in the process, that would be OK. They could get another one someday. Or maybe not even a Forde but a Dodje or Chevi. This previously unheard of attitude was becoming more and more popular - so much so that it would permeate the company marketing message as well.

With the rise of the renewalists came a change in advertising policy. The old message of Forde representing the class of the industry and the best car available was replaced with a more "cooperative" attitude. This "cooperativism" saw other companies not so much as competitors but as valuable businesses contributing in an overall quest for transportation. The deficiencies of other companies and their products were downplayed in favor of a more "respectful" attitude which focused on their similarities with Forde models. The competitors' customers were no longer attracted with the clear, blunt truth but confused with a vague message interpreted by many to be in support of their previously criticized purchasing decisions. This confusion was summed up in the words of one Hondu customer when he said,

As strange as it seems, Forde is becoming more and more known for the novelty of its vague advertisements and press releases. These cryptic messages can be interpreted as either reaffirming the old message or putting forth something new. The renewalist marketing and PR departments are infamous for not stating things clearly, or only doing so once in a long while. Such tactics have borne their fruit.

The final, and perhaps most frightening development, has been the emergence of the "radicals." These are employees, some of whom have reached executive status, with ideas totally alien to Forde, or any car company for that matter. Inspired by the success of the renewalists, they are working to "take the company to the next level". No longer do they see the need to produce cars, but have their sites set on expansion into energy bars and snowboards and crystals and sunglasses. Whatever the current trend may be, the radicals want Forde to be at the forefront and they see attachment to prior corporate practices as a huge stumbling block to be completely done away with.

Most of the upper executives have not been taking these radicals too seriously but have been curiously lenient in dealing with their dissemination of ideas and misrepresentation of the company. By comparison, the radicals make the renewalists seem old-fashioned and conservative. They tell the radicals that their ideas have no future, and Forde will never adopt them or else it will "cease being Forde." "But wait," counter the radicals, "these are the same things you were told not many years ago and look at what has happened since. Just like you, we are not contradicting the company mission and values, just developing them."

The persecution of the classicalists

By fate or providence, the classicalists are still around. They love Forde and believe in the company and what it truly stands for. They will work tirelessly to see it returned to its former glory, but their efforts are met with extreme resistance. When they point out the horrible sales, the number of trade-ins, the declining profits and the widespread popularity of radical ideas, they are ignored and disregarded. They recall that before this whole "renewal", these things weren't so much of a problem. They ask whether its time to reevaluate the results of the corporate changes given the current condition of the company.

Unwilling or unable to see the fault in their actions, the renewalists, supported by some recent customers, dismiss such suggestions as "classicalist propaganda" and those making them as "negative", "disloyal", "divisive" and "out of touch with the reality of the company." "The current situation," they say, "would have happened anyway." According to one vocal supporter of the renewalists:

Any concern for the future of the company and its financial projections are dismissed as "unwarranted" and "reactionary". Renewalists remind people that the federal government has given a perpetual guarantee of financial support to protect the company from failure. But those who know the history of the company know that protection from failure is no guarantee of success and they are not willing to settle for minimum survival.

Unfortunately, because they are disliked, misunderstood or seen as a threat, classicalists face many struggles. While the radicals are coddled and given invitations to "dialogue", classicalists are either completely ignored or face outright persecution. Radicals get warnings and suggestions in memos while classicalists face suspension and dismissal. Both "sides" are intolerable to renewalists but given the discrepancy of action, it is obvious which they see as more of a threat.

Those who insist on gathering to work on their Fordes in the manner of years now past are told they cannot. Some are told they are no longer customers for choosing to do so. Recently the management has allowed some of those "preferring" to work on their Fordes rather than subjecting them to the demolition derbies to do so, but only once a month, in the middle of the night, in South Harlem. Unless of course the district manager thinks it would cause "undue confusion", in which case they need to get with the program and stop living in the past. Those who prove most obstinate are lifetime handed a ban from Forde ownership.

The wisdom of the past executives

Jack Forde was not the founder but he ran the company in the early part of the century and is considered one of the greatest geniuses Forde has ever known. Something of a prophet, he would strongly warn against the ideas and actions adopted by the renewalists. He saw these ideas growing in popularity, even in his day, and could see their destructive power. To combat this trend, he strongly disciplined the precursors to the renewalist movement and made every Forde manager and new employee take an oath, professing to battle against those errors he saw so ruinous to the future of the company. As can no doubt be guessed, after the "renewal" conference, his oath was no longer seen as necessary.

In a effort to maintain tentative ties to their predecessors, the renewalist executives patronize Jack Forde and his contemporaries, allotting them a somewhat superficial form of respect. New dealerships are named after them, Forde advertisements capitalize on their legacies and images, but their messages, of which so much effort was spent in spreading and reinforcing, are disregarded as out of date or too simplistic for modern consumers. "If Jack Forde were around today," proudly assures one well-known renewalist, "he would have done the same things we have done. We are developing and enriching his legacy." But those retaining their grasp of the obvious know better.

For the executives and employees of Jack's day are long gone - distant memories of a seemingly unreachable past. The courage and commitment they portrayed are becoming extinct. New employees hoped to be the foot soldiers of the renewal have given way to radicalism and scandal on an unimaginable scale. A string of sexual harassment cases have plagued Forde for decades, embarrassing Forde to the point that few want to come work for a company of such ill repute. District managers have also shown their deficiencies in the way they've handled these scandals. Hoping to keep them secret, some managers have ignored repeated complaints or dealt with the problem by moving the offender to another dealership. Some have gone so far as to threaten and sue the victims, showing more interest in corporate image and profits than the rights and safety of the customers.

As the average age of employees increases and new applicants have been slow to take their place, Forde has been forced to face an interesting problem. A company cannot be run without employees and Forde has itself a "staff shortage." Although it is conveniently attributed to a societal shift of how people now regard careers in the automotive industry, it is becoming more and more difficult to overcome. With the number of applicants falling, the radicals are leading the way in suggesting new types of people who should be eligible for employment. They call for the hiring of those with "alternative lifestyles" who can be "valuable assets" to the company. Uneasy with publicly endorsing such tactics and unwilling to listen to the persistent voices reminding them like bad consciences that no such "shortage" existed in pre-"renewal" days, the renewalists have been working on more creative ways to handle the problem. Their "solutions" include having existing customers act like employees and help sell Fordes to their friends and neighbors; or trying to generate appeal by advertising Forde employment in such a way that would make Jack Forde roll over in his grave. But as these pseudo-employees and new applicants bring along their own radical ideas, one is left at ill ease for the future.

What does the future hold?

One of Forde's defining characteristics has always been a sense of hope, and those few classicalists who maintain the practices of old must be the leaders in that hope. Radicals have no need for hope, just as they have no real need for Forde beyond how it can be used to satisfy their agendas and desires. Renewalists don't see many problems with the company so have little for which to hope, beyond a general desire to see all companies working in cooperation to some extent, and everyone with one car or another (or not).

It's the classicalists that retain this hope in its original sense and meaning. They hope for the restoration of the company that played such an important role in the development of the world's greatest economies. With their founders to whom they pay much more than lip service, they hope for every person on earth be a Forde customer, properly protecting and cherishing what they have.

For Forde has seen many trends come and go; some have had temporary or lasting benefits while others have wrought destruction. But through it all, it was not these novelties and stunts that defined and sustained the company, but the faith in its original values and messages. Faith and hope in a promise that in the end, that which made the company great will once again triumph.

Peter Miller
Seattle, WA

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