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In 2008, with the economy collapsing, GM and Chrysler were in big trouble. And by April 2009, the two big automakers were looking at bankruptcy.
The US government stepped in and all told, between the Bush and Obama administrations, provided the car makers with $79.7 billion, of which $70.4 billion was recovered to taxpayers.
Even though Ford was also hurting, it famously never took government bailout money. There’s plenty of financial analysis on the how of that. However on Monday at the SXSW conference, chairman Bill Ford shared his story on why it never happened. He said employees, who feared for company’s future, volunteered to work without pay.
“I’ll remember this to the day I die. You all will probably remember that during the very dark days of the recession, our two principal American competitors, GM and Chrysler, went bankrupt. We didn’t. Why didn’t we go bankrupt? Well, you could say we made certain good decisions, but it was our employees. They would not let us,” Ford said.
“I got flooded with emails and letters from employees all the way from the plant floor saying, ‘Bill, don’t give up. We can do this. We won’t let you down,'” he said. The “weird thing” is that such rah-rah emails are usually “top-down messages” meaning coming from execs to employees, not the other way around, he said.
“Our people were working, Saturdays, Sundays, until 1-2 a.m. in the morning, no extra pay, in fact not even sure they were going to have a job the next morning. In fact, some of them didn’t have jobs the next morning. But they were willing to do whatever it took to pull us through,” he said.
“What was awesome for me, when we finally paid off all of our debt, we were able to rehire almost everybody,” he said.
And he couldn’t help but use this experience to take a swing at today’s Silicon Valley tech startups. (He didn’t mention Uber by name, but we couldn’t help reading between the lines.)
“A company has to be more than just a paycheck. It has to give people something more,” he said.
“That sometimes gets lost in all of this. It’s so easy to get caught up in technology: software, hardware, business models, all of which are important. If you don’t have a culture that means something, then you’re just going to have the experience of a bunch of transient employees who go to the next company, to the next great idea, and they won’t give it a second thought.”