Introducing the 10 Managing Director's of Henry Ford & Son Ltd over the last century

In the 100 years since Henry Ford & Sons Ltd was founded there have been ten Managnig Director’s. Here, we give the lowdown on the people who have been in the Irish driving seat over the last century.

1. PERCIVAL PERRY (May, 1919 - Sept, 1919)

The first Managing Director of Henry Ford & Son Ltd was one of Europe’s great pioneers of the motor business.

He had a close, if often volatile, relationship with Henry Ford, for whom he worked for half a century.

Born in 1878 in Bristol, he was ambitious and dynamic. An early car enthusiast, he set up as a motor dealer in the UK and made a big impression on Henry when the pair first met in 1906 — he was even extended a rare invitation to stay at the American’s home.

In 1909, Perry was asked to head up a new British branch of the Ford Motor Company. Although his $3,000 salary was not huge for the time, the bonus incentives on sales were highly impressive.

A stipulation of the contract was that he “devote his entire time and attention to the interests of the company” and this clause often brought him into disrepute with his employer.

In 1912, when he returned from his trip to the land of his ancestors, Henry wanted to persuade Perry that opening a factory in Cork was the right path to take.

Perry, who had opened a Ford factory in Manchester in 1911 — the company’s first outside the US — was not convinced, due to Cork’s remoteness from the British market, its perceived lack of skilled labour and relatively poor infrastructural facilities. He much preferred Southampton on England’s south coast.

However, he came to realise that sentiment had turned Henry’s head and he was not to be opposed. In his report to Henry, Perry wrote: “In my opinion, Cork has got Dublin beaten from almost every standpoint.” He then went about securing the land and getting the factory up and running.

On September 20, 1917, Perry was named as Managing Director of the new Irish company, with an address at The Marina, Cork, Ireland.

Demonstrating the high regard in which he was held by Henry, in addition to his Cork role, he remained “Henry Ford’s personal representative in Europe, Managing Director of Ford Motor Company (England) Ltd and Director of the Firestone Tyre and Rubber Company”.

A few months after production began at the Marina, with operations steadily improving, the man responsible for much of the original organisation of the company departed the scene.

On September 30, 1919, Perry — who was knighted in Britain in 1918 for his voluntary work with the Ministry of Munitions in World War I — resigned as Managing Director of Henry Ford and Son.

Although Perry fell out with Ford at the time, the pair rekindled their friendship a decade later, when Henry lured him out of early retirement to become chairman of the new British arm of the company.

Perry finally retired in 1948, shortly after Henry’s death, and died in 1956.]

2. EDWARD GRACE (Nov, 1919 - 1926)

Grace had carved out a name for himself in Ford’s US base and was a manager at the Dearborn Fordson tractor factory. Hard work and enthusiasm were among his great traits.

Born in 1887 near a Ford plant in Lafayette Boulevard, Detriot, he joined the company straight from school and became a Ford man through and through.

When he became MD in Ireland aged 32, he praised his workforce. “The raw labour we get here is highly superior to that which we are getting in Detroit, and there is an unlimited number of men to choose from. The men have to be taught the American way of working, but learn well.

“We go on the theory that, if we can wear a machine out in one month, so much the better. We get our money out of it just that much more quickly and make way for a more modern machine which may do the work faster and better.”

Grace was in charge when the Cork machine shop and foundry began operating and recorded on June 26, 1920: “Made first good cylinder casting today.”

A few days later, on July 3, exactly one year after the first tractor had been assembled in Cork, Grace reported his best week so far, with a total output of 173 tractors.

However, his optimism and enthusiasm were sorely tested during his years in charge, which coincided with the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and uncertainty surrounding the role and output of the Marina plant.

Grace often found himself at loggerheads with his bosses in the US as he sought to drum up sales and keep the Irish operation afloat, amid ongoing issues such as power problems, shortages of material, untrained labour, and external labour troubles.

In 1922, tractor production at the plant ceased and vehicle assembly became its primary focus, and Grace had to oversee this. He was no doubt delighted when Cork began manufacturing the Model T in 1923 — a process that lasted through the rest of his tenure.

In his final months as MD, the Fordsons factory team won the Free State (now FAI) Cup and at the victory ball, Grace admitted he was “still quite hoarse from cheering on the victors”.

At each stage of his career in Cork, he worked hard to defend his plant and ensure the production output and quality were maximised, and that his customers were supplied on time. He remained in position while British managers came and went and his battles to ensure the success of Cork, as well as his role in advising and directing UK management, contributed hugely to Ford’s development and success.

One incident sums up his passion for his work. During a dockers strike, he boarded the Glengariff at Penrose Quay and was surrounded by angry pickets. As he made his way back down the gangway, the strikers hurled stones and bricks at him and Grace, believing his life to be under threat, drew a revolver to protect himself!

His battle to keep the plant going, as this event shows, were extraordinary.

Grace left the job in 1926 and died in 1976 in his 90th year.

3. E.L CLARKE (1926-1932)

Eugene Clarke grew up on a small farm in Co. Sligo, the eldest of three brothers.

While attending the local National School, he taught himself shorthand as he felt he should leave the farm to his brothers and get a job.

He emigrated and worked with the London General Omnibus Company before later obtaining a job as Company Secretary with Ford in Cork — where no doubt his shorthand came in handy.

During his time as Managing Director, Clarke oversaw the end of the Model T, the launch of the Model A, and the return of tractor production to Cork in 1929.

It could be a perilous business. In April, 1929, Clarke was supervising firemen at a blaze that had plunged the factory into darkness, when he tripped and fell into a pit, breaking two bones in his leg.

Six months later, there was an even bigger unseen pitfall that blighted Clarke’s remaining years as MD — the Wall Street Crash.

With US head office now having to cope with the depression, Clarke had to battle hard to keep the Cork business afloat.

However, by 1932, Ford had launched its first European-only vehicle, the Model Y, which proved to be very popular and changed the company’s fortunes in Britain and Ireland. Also that year, the new Fianna Fáil Government brought in tariffs that led to Ford becoming an assembly-only plant for the next 62 years.

After 15 years at Ford — six as its main man — Clarke tendered his resignation on April 1, 1932, and from his home in Knockrea Park in Cork city, he wrote a polite and dignified farewell letter, stating: “I have at all times done my utmost to give to the company the best and most concentrated service of which I was capable.”

Later, Clarke qualified as a silversmith and moved to Canada in 1976. He died in 1986, aged 95.

4. JOHN O’NEILL (1932-1959)

The longest-serving MD in the history of the Irish company, O’Neill’s time in charge embraced the Marina’s boom decades of the 1930s and 1950s and the war years in between, when production ground to a halt.

He faced a baptism of fire, with the opening of the Dagenham plant in England soon after he took over, effectively sounding the death knell for Cork’s foundry.

He skilfully transformed the Cork plant into a busy assembly line, and oversaw the production of the plant’s 25,000th vehicle in 1938 and its 75,000th in 1950.

The change to assembly- operations, with a smaller workforce, marked the start of a half-century of relative stability and success for Ford in Ireland, although it also opened up the industry to tough homegrown competition for the first time.

Originally from the north of Ireland, O’Neill joined Henry Ford & Son Ltd in 1919. His first job was in costing, purchasing and stock control. Five years later, he accepted the opportunity to go to Ford of Antwerp in Belgium as office manager.

Having improved his French, he was promoted to assistant manager in Paris, where he spent a year before transferring to Istanbul as assistant manager of Ford Motor Company Export Inc. He was transferred back to Cork in 1932 as assistant manager to Clarke.

O’Neill showed business nous early in his time as MD when national newspapers were strike-bound for nine weeks in 1934, preventing him from advertising.

Wanting to get word out of a price cut on the Model Y, he overcame this difficulty by getting RTE 2RN, the national broadcasting station, to air it as a news item!

O’Neill’s other sales incentives included retail hire-purchase schemes, demonstrations and reduced insurance premiums on all Ford models.

Unionisation arrived under his watch in 1949, and by the end of his tenure, Henry Ford & Son Ltd was negotiating with 13 unions through a joint committee.

5. TOM BRENNAN (1959-1971)

Brennan had started with Ford in 1922, when he was 16 years old. In his first ten years there, he worked in various departments before being transferred to the Dagenham plant in 1932, where he rose to become Area Sales Manager.

He rejoined the Cork company in 1955 as General Sales Manager and became Managing Director four year later.

He was in charge for the plant’s 50th anniversary in 1967, when he persuaded Ford’s European Management to invest £2million in Cork to bring production up to the highest standards then prevailing on the continent.

Cork Taoiseach Jack Lynch was invited to oversee the launch of the new-look factory.

Brennan oversaw a prolific and successful tenure in terms of new models, launching the Escort in Ireland in 1968 and the Capri a year later.

Along with the already-launched Cortina, this trio of mass market cars went on to dominate the industry and Ireland’s roads for the next decade and more.

He died in 1995.

6. PADDY HAYES (1971-1985)

Corkman Hayes went to school in the North Mon in the city, going on to study engineering in UCC, and on graduation he joined Ford.

He had been chosen by his predecessor, Brennan, to implement the €2million investment in 1967, and his expertise in re-building, re-equipping and modernising the assembly plant bore fruit.

Shortly after he became MD, Hayes undertook a rationalisation plan which saw Cork become a two-car plant, producing Ireland’s best-selling models, the Escort and Cortina.

Soon after, Ireland joined the EEC but was given a 12-year stay of execution as regards implementing tariffs that would hurt the homegrown car industry.

Hayes had to grapple with recessions, rampant inflation, and oil crises during his time in charge, and all the while the clock was ticking on the tariff deal.

Finally, in 1984, he had to announce to the workforce that, after 65 years, the Marina plant was to close.

He left his role the year after, and later worked at a range of companies, including Waterford Glass.

7. HARTMUT KIEVEN (1985-1987)

The German executive was 39 when he became the first Managing Director of Henry Ford & Son Ltd to be appointed following the closure of the Marina site.
 
In 1987, he moved on to become the Commercial Marketing Director for Ford in Europe.
Kieven spent a total of 33 years with the motor company before leaving in 1998 to work for Nissan in his homeland.
 
 

8. EDDIE NOLAN (1987-2001)

Edwin J. Nolan — known to everyone as Eddie — started with Ford as a teenager in 1958.
Born in Buttevant, he spent many years as head of Ford’s tractor division before being elevated to MD.
 
This entailed spending many years at ploughing matches, agricultural shows, and farming exhibitions and gave him a grounding into customer services at a grassroots level.
 
“You can change a gearbox, but it’s very hard to change a farmer’s head,” he once reflected.
Nolan was also European product planning co-ordinator in Brussels for Ford’s 4-wheel drive tractor division.
His appointment as MD in 1987 coincided with the head office of the Irish company moving to Boreenmanna Road in Cork city, where it remains — a stone’s throw from the old Marina plant.
 
Nolan is highly regarded for the manner in which he led Ford during a period of upheaval. He brought his ethos that the customer was king — or queen — to the highest levels of the organisation and in five of his first ten years in charge, Ford in Ireland came first for customer satisfaction in all of Europe.
 
He recognised the enduring power of the brand and in an interview in 1997, he said: “At Ford, we have dealers with over 80 years with the company, as well as those with 70, 60 and 50 years service.”
 
A keen sailor, on a social level Nolan was proud to be a driving force behind his company’s connection to the biennial Cork Ford Week extravaganza.
 
He retired in 2001, but continued to play a role in business and, along with his son, John, opened the Cork City Ford dealership in 2011, where he was the company chairman.
Nolan, who was married to Cintra, with whom he had four children, died in 2013, a day before his 73rd birthday, at his holiday home in Schull, West Cork.
 

9. EDDIE MURPHY 2001-2015

After studying to be a teacher, Murphy found it hard to get a job in his chosen career and he joined Ford in 1979.
 
He served in a number of financial, sales and marketing roles before joining Ford Europe in 1987. He was based in Essex until 1992.
 
Murphy held all the senior operating positions at Henry Ford & Son Ltd in Ireland in the 1990s and was briefly Business Development Manager with the company in the UK before returning to Ireland as Sales Director.
 
He was elevated to Managing Director in 2001, while in his mid-forties.
During his tenure, Murphy felt the full force of the external economic forces that are constantly affecting the motor industry, presiding over years of sustained growth during the Celtic Tiger era, and having to deal with the crash that came midway through his 14-year reign.
 
A father-of-two, his outside interests included being President of the Society of the Irish Motor Industry and following UCC soccer team.
 
After 35 years in a variety of roles with Henry Ford & Son Ltd and other arms of the company across Europe, he retired in 2015.
 

10. CIARÁN McMAHON (2015-present)

The current Managing Director joined Ford as a graduate trainee in 1987, and occupied a variety of positions both in Ireland and abroad, including National Sales Director based in Cork.
 
In his two years at the helm, Galway man Ciarán has capitalised on the early signs of economic revival following the recession and his background in sales has helped the company achieve buoyant figures.
 
Earlier this year, figures from the Society of the Irish Motor Industry showed Ford was the leading brand in the combined car and van market in 2016, up 21% and 17% respectively on the previous year. The Focus and Fiesta continue to follow the Ford ethos of popular, stylish and affordable cars for the mass market.
 
“In the centenary year for Ford as a company in Ireland, it is heartening to hear that our vehicles were again the number one choice for motorists and van operators in the country,” said McMahon.
 
“No other car brand can claim such a pedigree in Ireland and it is clear that such a long-standing legacy is a huge boost to our favourability among Irish motorists.”
 
They are words which would chime with his nine predecessors.
 

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