Ford was born in Detroit, Michigan, the great-grandson of Henry Ford and great-grandson of Harvey Firestone. His father was William Clay Ford Sr. and his mother is Martha Firestone. On his mother's side his grandparents are Harvey S. Firestone Jr. and Elizabeth Parke Firestone. On his father's side his grandparents are Edsel Bryant Ford and Eleanor Lowthian Clay. Edsel Ford II, son of Henry Ford II and also a board member, is Ford's cousin. Ford has three sisters: Martha Morse (who has 3 children), Sheila Hamp (who has 3 children), and Elizabeth Kontulis.
Ford graduated from the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut in 1975 and went on to graduate from Princeton University in 1979, having majored in history and served as president of the Ivy Club. He played on the Princeton rugby team as well. In 1984 he received an M.S. in management as a Sloan Fellow from the MIT Sloan School of Management.
He joined Ford in 1979 and 1981 held a variety of positions, beginning in product development and on the financial staff, a grooming ground for future executives. He served several years as a mid-ranking executive in product development. He also briefly headed the Climate Control Division (since divested from the company as part of the Visteon spinoff). At the time of the Ford 2000 reorganization, he was in charge of heavy truck operations.
Ford gave up an executive position in heavy truck program management to become chairman of the finance committee on the Board of Directors, a non-executive corporate governance position. He was elected Chairman of the Board in September 1998, and took office on January 1, 1999. Ford added the title of Chief Executive Officer on October 30, 2001, following the ouster of then-CEO Jacques Nasser. That ouster reflected significant differences in corporate values—Nasser focused on maximizing corporate profits and shareholder value, while Ford was noted for valuing people and tradition. With the retirement of Ford President and Chief Operating Officer Jim Padilla in April 2006, Bill Ford assumed those roles as well. On September 5, 2006, Ford announced that he was stepping down as President and CEO, naming former Boeing senior executive Alan Mulally as his replacement. Ford continues as the company's Executive Chairman.
At the time of his stepping down, Ford was ranked 264th on Forbes' list of top-earning CEOs, at $10,000,000.00 per year.
In 2000, he announced that the company would achieve a 25% improvement in fuel efficiency in the company's light truck fleet, including SUVs, by mid-decade. That commitment proved to be impractical, given consumer preference for heavy towing capacity and large, powerful engines in their trucks; the company announced in 2003 that competitive market conditions and technological and cost challenges would prevent it from achieving the goal. Ford terminated its ongoing electric vehicle program as impractical and unaffordable from a profitable business standpoint. Some environmentalists questioned Bill Ford and the Company's commitment to environmental concerns, and others pointed to Ford Motor Company's continued marketing of the fuel-thirsty SUVs as evidence of an other-than-green corporate agenda. Ford's position is that for the company to remain profitable and competitive (and remain in business), it must supply what customers demand. During 2006, there was an unexpectedly large swing in consumer demand away from pickups and SUVs to smaller cars and crossover vehicles, due to rapid increases in gasoline prices, and Ford Motor Company was largely unprepared for such a sudden shift in demand.
Under Bill Ford's direction, Ford Motor Company made technological progress toward improving fuel efficiency, with the introduction of the Hybrid Electric Escape, the most fuel efficient SUV on the market, achieving 36 mpg (EPA) in city driving. The Escape's platform mates Mercury Mariner and Mazda Tribute are also scheduled to receive hybrid-electric powertrain options, along with other upcoming vehicles in the Ford product line including the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan. Ford announced that half of the vehicle lineup will be available with advanced hybrid-electric powerplant options by 2010, although the Company's earlier pledge to build 250,000 hybrid vehicles a year by 2010 proved to be overly optimistic, and had to be abandoned. Ford also continues to study Fuel Cell-powered electric powertrains, and is currently demonstrating hydrogen-fueled internal combustion engine technologies, as well as developing the next-generation hybrid-electric systems. In addition, to the Ford Escape, Hybrid Escape, Mercury Mariner, and Mazda Tribute, Ford is currently marketing high efficiency crossover SUVs such as the Ford Freestyle, and the Volvo XC70 and Volvo XC90. Ford is also developing sporty new crossover SUVs, such as the Ford Edge, Lincoln MKX, and Mazda CX-7.
Ford has expanded its lineup of flexible-fuel vehicles, alternative fuel vehicles, and dual-fuel vehicles. Flexible fuel vehicles can operate on a range of fuel mixtures – such as ethanol-gasoline blends ranging from pure gasoline to E85 (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline). Alternative fuel vehicles operate on non-petroleum fuels, such as methanol, compressed natural gas (CNG), propane, and hydrogen. Dual fuel vehicles generally have two fuel tanks – one for compressed natural gas or propane, and another for regular gasoline – with a selector switch to choose between them. Vehicles using these fueling alternatives are currently in test fleets, for example as taxis and shuttle buses, and some are or will soon be available for sale to the public. Ford is now committed to sell 250,000 alternative and flexible fuel vehicles – the majority of which will be designed to operate on ethanol-gasoline blends such as E85 – in 2006.
Speaking at conference in November 2000 in London Ford suggested that the company may one day offer a service where it owns vehicles and makes them available to people when they need access to them.
Market competition, health care and raw material costs, led Ford to announce a second restructuring for its North American operations in four years. Ford's restructuring plan, dubbed "The Way Forward", reversed a $1.6 billion loss during 2009 in its North American operations. The company returned to profitability in 2010.
Bill Ford has been a vocal advocate for improvements to be made in all modes of global transportation. Bill Ford has stated that governments and private industry will need to rethink transportation infrastructure and technology as the global population expands and the existing infrastructure is unable to keep pace. In January 2010, Bill Ford announced the launch of a strategic investment firm, Fontinalis Partners, with the purpose of investing in innovative companies developing next-generation mobility solutions. Bill Ford co-founded the firm with Ralph Booth (Chairman and CEO of Booth American Company and successful media and telecom investor), Mark Schulz (former head of Ford Motor Company’s international operations), Chris Cheever, and Chris Thomas.
Ford is married to Lisa Vanderzee Ford, and they have four children, all living in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Ford became widely known when he was serving as the new Chairman of the Board. On February 1, 1999, when the Ford Rouge Powerhouse had an explosion that killed several Ford employees, Bill Ford rejected the ideas of his advisers and rushed to the scene from the nearby Ford World Headquarters. One of his staff cautioned, "Generals don't go out to the front lines." Ford's retort: "Then bust me down to private." Ford stopped and gave an account of the explosion to roadside television crews.
According to news reports, Ford "is a tae kwon do blackbelt, a vegan and a folk guitar player." Ford also plays on the company hockey team and has won in their division at the 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010 USA Hockey Pond Hockey National Championships in Eagle River, Wisconsin.
Ford also is Vice Chairman of the Detroit Lions football team, Chairman of the Detroit Economic Club, and Chairman Emeritus of the Board of Trustees of The Henry Ford museum. He also is a Vice Chairman of Detroit Renaissance and a member of the Board of Directors of eBay Inc.
In 2000, Ford was cited to be worth around $2.8 billion based on the company's high stock price; however, today Ford's stake in the company is valued lower.
In 2009, Ford was featured in the IFTA nominated Canadian-Irish docudrama Death or Canada. Ford gives insight into the trials his family faced when they fled Ireland in 1847, at the height of the An Gorta Mór or Great Hunger, making their way to the United States through Canada, as many Irish immigrants of the time did.
In 2011, Ford was inducted into Irish America magazine's Hall of Fame.