Honorary Conferrings Speeches Archive

    at Aula Maxima, UCC

  • 21 Apr 2017








Professor CIARAN MURPHY, Dean of the Cork University Business School in University College Cork, on 21 April 2017, on the occasion of the conferring of the Degree of Doctor of Economic Science, honoris causa, on WILLIAM CLAY FORD Junior



Today, University College Cork honours a man who is a great educationalist but is not working in education, a man who is a great environmentalist but heads up an automotive company, a man who studied humanities in university but who is now a very large investor in technology, a man who was born into wealth but who is renowned for making people at ease in his company, a man who is passionately involved in sport but has never played hurling. It could be said that today we honour a contrarian - today we honour Bill Ford. As a person who has studied and continues to study history, Bill will appreciate that we must start with a little bit of history and context.


West Cork is a place apart – the people there are proud of their heritage, their environment and cherish their lifestyle and their closeness to nature. Within West Cork, Ballinascarthy is a very special place - how else can you explain the contribution of this tiny place of a few hundred people to the business and cultural history of the United States and indeed the world. Let me illustrate this by briefly recalling the stories of three families from the area who produced offspring who were to have such a dramatic and positive impact on the US – so much so that all were celebrated by having US postage stamps produced in their honour.


George M Cohan, born in 1878 in Rhode Island, was the composer of “Give my Regards to Broadway”, “Over There”, “Yankee Doodle Boy” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag” as well as a multitude of musicals.. He was the grandson of Michael Keohane (the name was changed to Cohan in the US) and Jane Scott, both from Ballinascarthy who had emigrated to the US.


William Michael Harnett was born in August 1848 between Ballinascarthy and Clonakility.  His family left for the US because of the famine in 1849. Harnett became one of the greatest American still-life painters of the 19th century and his work can be seen in all of the major art museums of the world.


Of course, the most famous Ballinascarthy family are the Fords.


William Ford left Ballinascarthy with his father John, his mother Tomasina and six siblings in 1847, at the height of the great Famine in Ireland, leaving the life of tenant farming behind in search of a better future. Theirs was a perilous journey and on route William’s mother Tomasina died.  They eventually joined with some of John’s brothers and settled in Dearborn, Michigan.


William Ford married Mary Litogot, the adopted daughter of his neighbours, Patrick and Margaret Ahern – They were married on April 21 1861, i.e. exactly 156 years ago today!  Their son, Henry Ford, was born in 1863 and had a very happy childhood growing up on the farm of his grandfather, Patrick Ahern. Patrick came from Fair Lane in Cork city (now Wolfe Tone Street), the street that leads into Fair Hill. In tribute to the Aherns, Henry Ford named his estate in Dearborn, Michigan, “Fair Lane” and subsequently, the iconic Fairlane automobile was developed from the mid-fifties into the early seventies.


Henry Ford was a mechanical and business genius. He coupled those outrageous talents of his with a vision that was profoundly social in nature.  Richard Tedlow in his book Giants of Enterprise quotes Henry Ford: “I will build a car for the great multitude, constructed of the best materials by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise … so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one – and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open space”. As Tedlow states “This elegant, eloquent passage ranks among the finest statements of corporate purpose in business history”.


The introduction of the Model T in 1908 represented the fulfilment of Ford’s overriding vision - the development of a car for the common man. Its success was the confirmation of Henry Ford as the first Business visionary.  Ford did more than anyone else in business to ensure that all of his employees were well paid when in 1914, he announced that he would share fifty percent of the profits with them, a truly revolutionary move at the time.


In 1912, Henry Ford visited Cork – the city and county that his ancestors had left over 60 years earlier.  This most uncommon of men had decided that it was time to address the needs of the common people of Cork – his ancestral home. Drawn to the spiritual wellspring of his family, he determined that he was personally going to improve the life of as many people as he could by doing the one thing that he knew would work - build a factory. In so doing he was to enrich the lives of thousands of Cork people giving them well paid jobs.


Henry Ford’s decision to set up his first manufacturing plant outside of America was an emotional rather than an economic one.Thomas McCraw in his book, Joseph Schumpeter: Prophet of Innovation, tells us that Henry Ford was one of the very few conspicuous exceptions of rich business people who shared his good fortune with the disadvantaged at home or abroad.


The impact of Henry Ford’s decision to set up a manufacturing facility in Cork 100 years ago this week was to be profound, not just on the economy of this city, but his decision was to be the ultimate harbinger of a sustained growth in manufacturing investment in Ireland that was to continue for decades and which still continues.  In turn, it was the investment of US manufacturing companies that gave rise to the development of the indigenous software industry in Ireland. The virtuous circle started by Henry Ford continues to benefit Ireland in very significant ways.


Research shows that 30 percent of family businesses make it to their second generation and only 12 percent make it to their third generation. Bill Ford is the fourth generation Ford and it is a testimony to his leadership and to the family that the company has not just survived but prospered under his stewardship. His is a record of enduring, outstanding success combining a clear business vision, a strong value system and a passionate commitment to his company and to community and society in general.


To cover all of the great achievements of Bill Ford would take too long – I will focus on his career in Fords, his commitment to environmental issues, his great interest in mobility and technology and his amazing support for education and other philanthropic causes.


Bill Ford was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1957. He was the only son in a family of four children born to William Clay Ford Sr. and Martha Park (Firestone) Ford.  After high school, Bill attended Princeton University, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in political science and wrote his senior thesis on labour relations at Ford. Later, he went back to school to obtain a Masters of Science in management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1984.


Bill  married a fellow Princeton student, Lisa Vanderzee, and they have two daughters and two sons, Eleanor, Alexandra, William and Nicholas, and I am delighted to welcome Lisa, Will and Nick to UCC today.



After Princeton, he went to work at Ford, starting as a financial analyst and eventually rotating through eleven jobs in his first ten years with the firm. During that time, he worked in the US and Europe and took on roles of business strategy, advanced vehicle development and ran Ford of Switzerland. After being appointed general manager of Climate Control Division in 1992, he led a profit turnaround and a major improvement in product quality. He also established the company’s first wildlife habitat at a plant location and the first automotive plant in the world to use 25 percent post-consumer materials in all of its plastic parts. While he was general manager, the division won the President’s Commission on Environmental Quality Award.


In 1988, Bill joined the Board of Directors. He was appointed a company vice president and head of the company’s Commercial Truck Vehicle Center in 1994. He left that position in order to assume the chairmanship of the Board of Directors’ Finance Committee in 1995.


He was appointed Chairman of the company in 1999.  In addition to his duties as chairman, he served as Chief Executive Officer of the company from October 2001 to September 2006, when Bill was named executive chairman of the company – a position that he holds to this day. In that capacity he oversees the running of a business with revenues of over $150 billion in 2016 or over fifty percent of the GDP of Ireland.



Bill traces his engagement with environmental issues back to the 1970s and has led the drive to focus on environmental issues in Fords with determination and courage. In Bill’s own words

When I joined Ford, in the late 1970s, I felt strongly we could not forever be a huge user of natural resources without there being consequences. But I was alone in my thinking in those days. Through the ’80s, I tried to find kindred spirits within Ford. There were a few, but it was an uphill battle, particularly with top management, who thought I was probably a Bolshevik. Our business, like others, depends on getting the best and brightest, and we weren’t going to get the best and brightest if this place was not socially acceptable to work at. When I joined the board, in 1988, I was told I couldn’t have any environmental leanings. I completely disregarded that.” But he continued pushing. He was the first executive to ever speak at a Greenpeace business conference, in London in 2001. As he has stated “That didn’t play well here at Ford, but I thought it was an important signal to send internally, that these were the kind of issues we needed to be grappling with.”


Bill oversaw the redevelopment of the Ford Rouge plant, where he took the world’s largest brownfield site and made it into the world’s greenest assembly plant. He also championed the Escape Hybrid, the world’s first hybrid-electric sport utility vehicle. With his guidance, in 2000 Ford Motor Company published its first annual corporate citizenship report outlining the economic, environmental and social impact of company products and operations around the world. It publicly measured its performance on a number of key environmental and sustainability measures. Under Bill Ford’s leadership Ford Motor Company was named the Best Global Green Brand among all companies in the world in 2014, and one of the World’s Most Ethical Companies for the seventh year in a row in 2016.


Technology and Mobility

Bill Ford is a reflective leader who sees major challenges for society in terms of what he describes as the global gridlock but also sees the opportunities for technology to address these issues. In 2011, Bill gave a ground breaking TED talk where he challenged the idea that vehicle sales can just continue to grow and grow.


Let me quote Bill. “Where are these cars going to go? In most cities, if people have a car, they love their car and hate everybody else’s. And they are paying a fortune to just keep the car. In many cases, they have to pay a fee to get into a city center or can only go in on odd or even days, depending on the license plate. Lots of cities are trying to deal with this in different fashions, but those aren’t long-term solutions. Those are Band-Aids. Today, 30 percent of all fuel burned in cities comes from cars looking for a parking spot. And that’s not only fuel. That’s time, that’s aggravation.”


Bill Ford is getting Ford to redefine themselves as a mobility company and not just as a car and truck manufacturer. He sees that technology will play a very significant role in addressing these issues and therein lies a challenge and opportunity that faces all established companies across all the business sectors.


As he states “The role of a traditional automaker is changing dramatically. We become a piece of the mobility ecosystem. In this new world, we need to figure out what we have to own and what we don’t and to be a great integrator of technologies and services.”  For example, Ford and Zipcar have partnered in over 250 college campuses in the US offering a service to students to drive Ford made Zipcars which has been very successful. 


In 2011, he began outlining the company’s vision of what sustainable transportation will look like in the years ahead, as well as the steps it will take to get there. That future includes vehicles that communicate with each other and the world around them to make driving safer, ease traffic congestion and sustain the environment. In 2015, the company announced Ford Smart Mobility, its plan to deliver advances in connectivity, mobility, autonomous vehicles, the customer experience and data and analytics.  He has the company pursuing all of those areas, including car-sharing and fractional ownership, electric vehicles, and even mobility experiments aimed at examining how people get around in rural Africa. His goal is to make the driving experience safer, more intuitive, and more fun. The company backs a start-up accelerator called Techstars Mobility, and it has a research and innovation lab in Silicon Valley.


On a personal level, Bill is a Cofounder and Partner in Fontinalis Partners - a company that invests in technology companies addressing the entire next-generation mobility ecosystem on an intermodal basis across road, rail, air, maritime, bike, etc.  Bill states: “My great-grandfather helped put the world on wheels so everyone could enjoy the benefits of mobility.  Our vision is to expand on that thinking, using advanced technology and new business models so that personal mobility remains viable in a crowded world.”



Bill Ford strongly believes that business leaders must play a role in their communities and moreover he practices what he preaches.  Let me quote Bill on this “As leaders, we can all find reasons not to get involved, but our communities need us. As leaders, we have, hopefully, some brain power, we have connections, we have resources. And we should bring those to bear to make our communities better places - whether that’s schools or hospitals or helping with social issues like homelessness and hunger. Find the thing that resonates most - but whatever it is, do it and set the example. And, usually, what comes back to you in terms of goodwill is ten times what you put into it.”


After Turkey’s earthquake in 1999, and the tsunami in Southeast Asia in 2004, he asked Ford employees to help. The response was overwhelming. In 2005, he launched the Ford Volunteer Corps to enhance the efforts of employee volunteers serving communities around the world. In its first ten years, 30,000 volunteers from the Ford Company worked on more than 9,000 projects in 40 countries and donated more than one million hours to building communities.


Bill is especially proud of Ford’s support for education.  In Mexico, for instance, Ford and their dealers have built more than 200 elementary schools in rural areas.  Under his leadership, the company’s philanthropic arm, Ford Motor Company Fund and Community Services, focused its efforts on helping communities, supporting education and improving safety through driving skills training.


The William C. Ford, Jr. Scholarship Program was established by Bill Ford to assist Ford employees and their children in paying for post-secondary education. Scholarships are awarded to the top 25 percent of applicants based on academic achievement.


Earlier today we had the privilege and honour of witnessing first hand Bill Ford’s commitment to education here in Ireland when he launched the Ford Centenary Quercus Scholarship programme in support of very talented students here at University College Cork, which guarantees current and future generations of students with special talents the support that will enable then to blossom and in turn to maximise their contribution to their communities and to society in general.


In 2015, he championed the 30 Under Thirty program to develop the next generation of Ford philanthropic leaders and the Bill Ford Better World Challenge, which provides grant funding for projects that engage employees worldwide and their local non-profit organisations  in addressing needs that will improve community life and make people’s lives better.


Bill Ford’s commitment to Detroit in terms of his charitable, volunteer and business efforts are both considerable and unique. He is Vice Chairman of the Detroit Lions professional football team. He helped develop the Detroit Police Athletic League youth football program into one of the largest in the country. He is Chairman of the Board of the Detroit Economic Club, a member of the Board of Trustees of The Henry Ford and the Henry Ford Health System, and is Chairman of the New Michigan Initiative of Business Leaders for Michigan.


In 2011 Bill was inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame.  In recognition of his commitment to education and devotion to the Detroit community, in 2015 he was given the Ambassador for Humanity Award by the University Of Southern California Shoah Foundation Institute.  An interesting aside for us in Cork is that the oldest neighbourhood in the city of Detroit is called Corktown.  It was settled by Irish immigrants in the 1840s who were fleeing the potato famine.  By the mid-1800s, the Irish were the largest ethnic group settling in Detroit, most of them came from Cork, hence the name of the neighbourhood.


For his down time, Bill can be described as a man for all seasons.  On a nice spring or summer day, he enjoys driving a Mustang convertible with the top turned down and the music turned up - he is a keen fan of Irish music.  In the autumn, you can find him cheering on the Detroit Lions football team, in the winter playing hockey outdoors on a frozen pond (he has won the USA Pond Hockey National Championship with a Ford team five times) and is an avid fly fisherman.



Henry Ford was a great social and technical innovator and visionary of the early twentieth century who, by challenging the received wisdom of the automobile industry, changed it and the lives of all of us forever. In 1927, this university awarded Henry Ford an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws, in recognition of his contribution to Ireland and to this city.


His great grandson Bill Ford has demonstrated that the apple seldom falls far from the tree. Bill’s leadership of the Ford Motor Company is best summed up in his own words:

“I believe the purpose of a company is to make people’s lives better, - that is how we became great in the past and it is how we will become even greater in the future.”

“The ongoing success of Ford Motor Company is my life’s work, -   Nothing is more important to me than our reputation as a family company that people trust to do the right thing.”


Bill Ford, while very different in many respects to his great grandfather Henry, has inherited and built dramatically on the Ford legacy of business genius, business visionary, of challenging the received wisdom of the automobile industry, of caring for the environment and of being such a generous benefactor to communities all over the world, including here in Cork.


Business history has shown us that, in this week when we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Ford Motor Company in Ireland, the contributions that the company and the Ford family have made over the 100 years to this city, and indeed globally, have been immense and one of which the Ford family, company and all of us here can take great honour.


It is said that the Irish diaspora are drawn back to Ireland by the voices within them of their ancestors. It is difficult to stand here today and not believe that it is Henry Ford himself who speaks to the current Ford family encouraging them to revisit Ballinascarthy and Cork city. 


It is our hope that those voices of the Ford ancestors will ever strengthen in their invocation to the current members of the Ford family to return to this place – your home from home.


Bill Ford is a major net contributor to his company, to his community and to global society – he is a leader who has led by example and is a leader who has convinced more by his actions than by just his eloquence.


Bill Ford is a visionary and caring business leader, he is without doubt an extraordinary family man, he is a man who not just appreciates the value of education, but supports and drives people onward to embrace educational opportunities.


Moreover, he is a remarkable human being who is truly worthy of UCC’s highest honour.


Praehonorabilis Cancellarie, totaque universitas!

Praesento vobis hunc meum filium, quem scio tam moribus quam doctrina habilem et idoneum esse qui admittatur, honoris causa, ad Gradum Doctoratus in Scientia Oeconomica, idque tibi fide mea testor ac spondeo totique Academiae.


Most Honourable Chancellor, and the whole University!

I present to you this my son, whom I know to be fitted and suitable, as much in character as in learning, to be admitted for the sake of honour, to the Degree of Doctor of Economic Science and, by my faith, I testify and vouch for this fact to you and the whole Academy.



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