Ford VP relies on focus and faith for success
BY SARAH A. WEBSTER • FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER • March 2, 2008
"By 20, know something.
"By 30, be something.
"By 40, have something."
For the last few decades, that saying has been one of the mantras that has helped guide Bennie Fowler, vice president for global quality at Ford Motor Co. since March 2007.
Along with faith, hard work and support from his family, it has helped him rise from humble beginnings in Georgia, where he sold eggs door-to-door as a kid, to one of Ford's most senior management positions.
Last year, Ford shined in the annual study of new-vehicle quality by J.D. Power and Associates. The Dearborn-based automaker captured more top model awards than any other automaker, five in all, with nine other vehicles earning second- and third-place honors.
Improving quality through rigorous processes and discipline is a key to CEO Alan Mulally's effort to rebuild Ford in the style of Toyota Motor Corp.
This early success has been backed by other magazines, such as Consumer Reports, and independent research groups, giving Ford -- and Fowler -- a big shot in the arm.
The performance helped Fowler win the 2008 Urban Wheel Award for African American Executive of the Year. During a recent interview in his office at Ford's headquarters, Fowler confessed that getting there hasn't been easy. Over the past 30 years, Fowler has worked for all three of Detroit's automakers, the past 18 at Ford. His journey to the top, he said, has required daily prayer, intense focus and an overriding desire to win -- all skills that Fowler, an intimidating figure at 6 feet 3 and 280 pounds, honed as a lifelong athlete.
Now 51 and achieving things he hadn't expected, Fowler has had to revamp his lifelong mission statement for the future. He's added this: "By 50, share something." On that point, too, he's already well on his way. Fowler is president of the Ford African Ancestry Network, where he helps mentor other minorities. A father of four, he also cofounded Powerstroke Athletic Club in 2000. Several former students from that youth sports organization, based in Southfield, are now playing in college. "I don't see it as an additional thing I need to do," he said. "I see it as part of what I believe in."
A focused life
Fowler's life story is a lesson about the value of education, hard work and discipline. He was born outside Atlanta in 1956, the oldest son in a family of seven. He had two older sisters, and his family lived in government-subsidized housing. His late father, Bennie Fowler Sr., a former sergeant in the Army, ran a strict household. "Everything was prioritized around what the family needed to do," Fowler said. "A lot was expected of me." In the Fowler home, the children were expected to get good grades, help support the family, stay out of trouble and go to church on Sunday. "People would call me Streetlights," Fowler joked, "because I had to be home before the streetlights went on." Schools were segregated when Fowler entered the classroom, and he attended an all-black school until ninth grade, when white students began being bused to his school. But Fowler said it was not a distraction: "When I went to school, I went to school," he explained.
And outside school, he worked. By age 13, he was selling eggs door-to-door, bringing home about $8-$10 a week. After all his responsibilities had been met -- and only if they had been met -- Fowler could enjoy some recreation.
In high school, he played drums in the Magnificent 100-Plus marching band, but mostly, Fowler let loose by playing baseball and basketball, in which he excelled.
"Every kid grows up thinking they want to be a professional athlete," he said. "I had similar dreams of getting out of the neighborhood."
To an extent, Fowler was right.
An athletic scholarship brought him to Central State University, one of the nation's oldest historically black universities. Fowler played basketball and baseball for the school in Wilberforce, Ohio, and he majored in business management. On all fronts, he pushed himself.
"I did feel like this was an opportunity for me," he said. "I took it seriously."
His hard work paid off. Fowler played in three National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics national championship basketball tournaments and reached the quarterfinals his senior year. In baseball, he was a pitcher, and after graduation, he even tried out with the Cincinnati Reds.
"I wanted to play at a higher level," he said. But destiny had other plans
A new direction
By then, Fowler already had a taste of the automotive industry.
Between his junior and senior years, he had worked as a production supervisor at Delco Products, a subsidiary of General Motors Corp., in Ohio.
His job: supervising seasoned UAW workers.
Fowler quickly found that all those lessons he had learned in school, playing ball and going to church were incredibly valuable. Already an intimidating physical figure, Fowler decided to approach his reports as a student, asking workers for help, and taking more of a coaching approach than that of a hard-line boss.
"If you went in there acting like you knew everything, that was going to be a problem," he said.
He went back to his senior year with a lot more cash in his pocket and confidence that he could be successful in the manufacturing industry.
In his mind, factory life was a lot like sports. You have a team that has to work together, and, he noted, "I knew how many parts I made every day."
Perseverance and promotion
General Motors hired Fowler as a production manager in 1978, the year he graduated from college, at its AC Spark Plugs facility. After a few years on the job, Fowler realized that if he wanted to advance, he would need an advanced degree, so in 1984, he went back to school to get his master's degree at Indiana University.
When he graduated in 1986, he went to Chrysler as the area manager for paint, final assembly and body operations. In that capacity, he worked in multiple plants in metro Detroit. In 1990, Fowler left Chrysler for Ford, convinced he would have more opportunity.
He became the final area manager at St. Thomas Assembly Plant in Ontario and quickly moved up through the ranks, becoming plant manager of Wayne Assembly Plant in 1996, overseeing the launch of an updated Ford Escort.
From there, he moved through positions in manufacturing and product development before being named a vice president in 2003.
By April 2006, Fowler had been appointed to oversee corporate quality back in Dearborn, in addition to his duties with advanced and manufacturing engineering. The next year, he was put in charge of global quality.
In those jobs, Fowler has focused most of his attention on fixing the infrastructure that ultimately decides whether Ford produces the product that consumers expect and being strict in execution.
Joe Hinrichs, Ford's group vice president for global manufacturing, works closely with Fowler, and he credits him with being "a process disciplinarian."
"He understands the process and preaches religiously to follow the process, which is one of the strengths he brings to the quality position," Hinrichs said. "Bennie is an individual who is not afraid to say what he thinks is right, and he's not afraid to stand in front of the train if it's moving in the wrong direction and needs to be stopped."
Fowler, who was part of the team that delayed delivery of the Ford Edge in 2006 until quality was just right, said having the best quality is about making good decisions throughout the process. Today, he said, Ford is doing just that.
"We have a goal: We're going to be the best in the world, bar none," Fowler said. "Our quality will get better because the management is committed to quality getting better."