'Crown prince' Billy in gear for top Ford job

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'THERE are no crown princes,' said Henry Ford II when asked whether another family member would ever occupy the throne of America's most powerful industrial dynasty. Some years on, that can no longer be said to be true.

The US car manufacturing industry was yesterday abuzz with speculation over whether William Clay Ford Jr, a boyish 37-year-old better known as 'Billy', is being groomed as eventual successor to the top job at Ford Motor Company.

Mr Ford, great-grandson of the company's founder, became the focus of debate when the corporation announced on Thursday that he has been appointed chairman of its powerful finance committee. The promotion sparked a flurry of suggestions that the young man is being positioned to take over from Ford's chairman and chief executive, Alex Trotman, who retires at the end of the decade.

His new job, currently occupied by his 69-year-old father, who will retire, is considered one of the corporation's top three positions. The finance committee approves all the car maker's big financial and strategic decisions; its chairman therefore oversees the purse strings.

It is 15 years since a Ford headed the firm. Henry II - William Jr's uncle and grandson of the first Henry Ford (of Model T fame) - was a flamboyant jet-setter and favourite of the gossip columns. But when he left office in 1979, he had dramatically revived the company's fortunes after a period of decline.

In recent years, the Ford family has occasionally clashed with Ford's professional managers over its degree of control. But its influence remains great, not least because it controls 40 per cent of the stock.

Industry analysts say the elevation of William Ford Jr is a reminder that despite its size - it has 330,000 employees and annual sales of dollars 109bn ( pounds 70.5bn) - Ford is still a family company.

His remarks this week suggest that he has family concerns at heart and may have been chosen by his relatives as guardian of their interests: 'I feel like I'm not working for myself. I am working for my children and grandchildren.'

His ambition is not in doubt. In 1987, he told an interviewer that he 'would like the top position'. After acquiring a degree at Princeton University, and a masters from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he quickly rose through the hierarchy. He has worked in planning, marketing and assembly, as chairman of Ford Switzerland and - his last job - as head of the commercial truck division.

The glittering future being mapped out for William Clay Ford Jnr by Ford watchers has also prompted questions about the future of the other aspirant for the crown from within the Ford clan: his 45-year-old first cousin Edsel (Henry II's son).

Edsel B Ford II has made it clear that he wouldn't have wanted the committee chairmanship won by his younger relative, saying he prefers to remain in operations. He heads Ford's credit subsidiary.

He has a reputation for being a touch more volatile than the thoughtful William Jr, but cannot be ruled out as a contender. He, too, is ambitious. Five years ago, he publicly complained that he had been passed over for important management positions.

And he may have another advantage: William Jr's move means he must resign from his other management duties - which could give Edsel Ford an unexpected edge when the final choice is made years hence.