‘Big shoes’ to fill at Ford

She stick-handled the company's maiden voyage into e-commerce and helped establish a global Web site and brought all of the company's Ford and Mercury dealerships under one franchise to eliminate brand confusion.

Financial Post
February 14, 2001

‘Big shoes’ to fill at Ford
A woman of firsts, Bobbie Gaunt broke the auto industry's glass ceiling
Ted Laturnus

In the car business, the phrase, "female automobile executive" is somewhat of an oxymoron. Despite some inroads over the past 10 to 15 years, the automotive industry remains an overwhelmingly all-male bastion, particularly in the upper echelons of management.

Yet, there are exceptions to every rule. One of those exceptions is Bobbie Gaunt, who at age 54, retired on Dec. 31, 2000 from her position as president and chief executive officer of Ford Motor Company of Canada. She was the first female president of the company and one of the few women to break the "glass ceiling" of the automotive industry.

Ms. Gaunt, who had been boss of Ford of Canada since 1997, worked for the automaker for 28 years, and, literally, made her way up from the bottom.

Graduating from the University of Pittsburgh with degrees in education and business, she started out, as many future executives do, servicing the dealership network, and spent years travelling throughout the United States, relocating at least 10 times from her home in Washington, Pa., to Cleveland, Washington, D.C., California, and, eventually, Canada. Holding key positions in sales, marketing and market research, Ms. Gaunt has always downplayed her gender: "I am a president who happens to be a woman, not a woman who happens to be a president." Nonetheless, she was the first woman in virtually all of her postings, and the first woman at Ford to lead a national operation. She was also the first company officer to become Ford of Canada president since Edsel Ford, in 1927.

Perhaps Ms. Gaunt's biggest accomplishment at Ford of Canada has been to put a human face on the company. She spearheaded the implementation of an in-house daycare centre for children in 1999, and began an ongoing mentoring program to address employees' "work/life balance concerns." She has always been known for her accessibility and "down-to-earth" communication style, and during her tenure at the helm of Ford of Canada, employees rated their satisfaction higher than anywhere else in the company's worldwide operations. Ms. Gaunt also contributed to Ford's partnership with the Children's Television Network and children's television show, Sesame Street, to help promote safety.

She is also widely regarded as the driving force that helped transform Ford of Canada into a more consumer-oriented company. She stick-handled the company's maiden voyage into e-commerce and helped establish a global Web site and brought all of the company's Ford and Mercury dealerships under one franchise to eliminate brand confusion. Ms. Gaunt helped launch more than 20 new cars and trucks over the last three years, including the new Focus subcompact, the Th!nk electric car, the Excursion and Lincoln Navigator sport-utility vehicles, the redesigned Windstar minivan, and the Lincoln LS luxury sedan.

Ford's Web site, launched last May, allows buyers to build, price, and order Ford vehicles completely online.

Most significantly, Ms. Gaunt brought Ford into the 20th century in terms of environmental consciousness. When she arrived in Canada, one of her first moves was to establish a department within the company to actively market alternate fuel and electric vehicles, and she was at least partially responsible for Ford of Canada's Th!nk line of electric vehicles and bicycles. She was also a key player in Ford's relationship with fuel cell manufacturer Ballard Power Systems, in which Ford has invested some $600-million in research and development.

Although Ms. Gaunt claims she will be devoting more time to her family, she is not likely to be idle during her retirement. She is an avid gardener and reader, and believes in setting aside at least one hour each day for herself to do whatever she feels like doing; what she calls "a gift of time." She also introduced this idea during her time at Ford, especially in the area of customer relations.

Ms. Gaunt has also been active in various causes, such as the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, the YMCA, the Women's Automotive Association International, and the International Women's Forum. She has received numerous accolades during her career, including honourary degrees from Niagara College, Ryerson Polytechnic University and Sheridan College. Although she will be out of the limelight, Ms. Gaunt plans to continue mentoring various non-profit organizations and small business entrepreneurs. "My career has been a journey of discovery, so my retirement will provide time to share what I have learned."

Jacques Nasser, Ford chief executive officer and president, says, "Bobbie Gaunt demonstrated the true meaning of leadership throughout her career at Ford Motor Company. She consistently showed the courage to challenge, the drive to accomplish, and the caring to inspire."

According to John Arnone, a Ford of Canada spokeman, the company has yet to name a replacement for Ms. Gaunt. "They're big shoes to fill."

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