A month ago, Bad Kitty and I went on a roadtrip (a roadtrip that we pitched to Ford, BlogHer was not affiliated in any way, and we were not paid, We just wanted to drive some badass cars and fulfill a dream.) We drove two incredible Ford vehicles: a 2010 Mustang GT and a 2010 Taurus SHO. We were treated like VIPs at Ford World Headquarters where we learned about Ford's sustainability efforts and about their social justice initiatives, things you don't hear much about in the mainstream media. I'm not sure why. Maybe they are afraid of being accused of greenwashing. Maybe, with the current economic situation they have bigger fish to fry. Maybe, in the grand sales-driven scheme of things, it's not a priority.
I have been skeptical.
I have said, outloud, often, and to many people, that I "don't like" American cars, even though I have personally owned two Fords.
Then a man named Larry Moskwa changed my life.
Larry works at Ford's largest assembly plant located on the outskirts of Chicago. Larry was the guy who gave me and about 50 other women bloggers a (BlogHer-affiliated) tour of said assembly plant and it was an experience I will never forget. As we wrapped up the tour, there was one thing I knew for certain: every American, before passing judgment on the auto industry, should visit an auto assembly plant to see how cars are built. If you haven't looked those people in the eye and seen first hand how efficiently, how carefully, how proudly they do their jobs, your opinion won't hold much water with me.
As we entered the plant, I sensed I was about to witness something special. Something most Americans probably have never seen, never will see. About half way through the tour, my head full of more information about cars than I'd ever thought I'd know, I thought, "God, what an ignorant a-hole you've been about this whole business." I felt like the worst kind of ignorant, half-clued-in fool.
Let me back up for just a second and explain further why I was there in the first place. Ford invited us lady bloggers to tour the assembly plant, drive some vehicles, and learn about how Ford makes cars. We've all heard the spiel about how women control 80+% of household spending especially when it comes to the big purchases like cars and appliances. How smart of Ford to invite women to see how Ford gets it done. How smart to have a bunch of women execs lead the breakout sessions. How smart to ask women what they want in a car. We all knew why we were there. Ford knew we knew. That wasn't the point.
Think about the last time you bought a car. Was it a pleasant experience? Did you even get a chance to really drive it or did you just go through the motions barely paying attention, just wanting to get on with the awful haggling and check signing and the feeling dirty. Really dirty.
Imagine walking into dealership and learning everything there is to know about Ford's safety features from someone like this:
Then imagine learning about a car's collision sensing system and how state-of-the-art cruise control should work from her:
Imagine learning about sustainability programs (like the fact that the seats in a Mustang GT are made of soy foam) from her:
Then imagine being able to walk out of the dealership remembering all of the details and being able to share things like soy foam is lighter than petroleum-based foam so it helps with fuel economy, EcoBoost makes a V-6 engine feel like a V-8 so you get power and fuel efficiency in one shot. Imagine being able to talk intelligently about cruise control, gas mileage, about an automaker's worldwide employee standards, about why the sound the car door makes when it shuts is important, about how much research goes into making sure a factory worker's station is ergonomically correct, about why SYNC is better than OnStar, about SmartKey and why you hope you have a car with that feature when your teenager starts driving. (This is where @scottmonty, head of Ford social media, reads and his head explodes because I didn't explain SYNC or SmartKey.) Imagine parallel parking a car without your hands ever touching the steering wheel and giddily sharing the experience with your friends. Imagine if dealerships were like that. If they were, imagine the possibilities.
Unfortunately I didn't take a picture of all the women we met that day. There were many more than the ones I showed, and we came away from the morning sessions with brains jammed full of Ford. Then we broke for lunch and decompressed.
After lunch was when we met Larry. Now, I know what you're thinking. Here we've just met all these great women (and men, too), but it was Larry that rocked my world? Bear with me. In fact, suit up with me, wouldja?
Yes, we all felt a little corny and were cracking jokes about how fluorescent yellow wasn't our best color, but we quickly learned that an assembly plant floor was a dangerous place, and we were going out on the floor next. We cut the clowning and paid attention.
Larry, a big hulk of a guy, came into the room and we all donned headsets so we could hear him talking. The plant floor is also a noisy place, and by wearing the headsets, we had Larry directly in our ears so he didn't have to yell and we didn't have to strain to hear. Suit up, he said in a booming, Chicago-accented (da Bearsssss) voice. Stay in a straight, single-file line, he commanded. Do not stop to take pictures until we're in a safe spot, do not fall out of line, keep up with the group, And we did.
Larry took us straight into the heart of the cacophanous, bustling assembly plant. To our right cars were being outfitted with trim and airbags. To our left, on went the tires, each task taking mere seconds. All the while Larry explained what everyone was doing.
Let's play a game. Say a Ford dealer finds a problem with an automobile and reports it to Ford. How much time goes by before the problem is identified and addressed on the factory floor? Take a guess.
A week? Five business days? Three days? Two?
That's right. 1 day. If a dealer in California finds a problem, the factory is Chicago is fixing it within 24 hours. Then I saw this sign hanging high above the assembly plant floor:
"I don't take defects. I don't make defects. I don't ship defects to my customers."
That sign hit me like a ton of bricks. After everything I learned that day, it occured to me that this company was not a heartless, soul-less corporation full of automatons (like so many crash test dummies) churning out crappy cars. This company was made of people. People who cared immensely about the products they were building. People on the line smiled and waved at us. They held up power tools and tires as if to say, "I'm building a damn fine product here. We all are. When are you smug city folk going to take notice?"
The women that we spoke with had all been with Ford for years. Decades even. One especially astute woman (who had been working at Ford since she graduated from college) had been working 3 days a week for the past 12 years because she was also a mom and wanted to be there for her kids. Imagine a company letting an employee work a 3 day schedule for TWELVE years. That is how much she meant to Ford.
I thought about my insular Silicon Valley world. Land of Priuses and farmer's markets every day of the week and vegan shoes. Where people compared extreme diets, out-gardened each other, and where yoga classes sometimes doubled as fashion shows. Where NO ONE works a job for decades. Where no one would stand up from their cubes and wave their laptops at visitors and smile and say, "Hey! Our application is AWESOME! We'd be honored to show you how it works!" More like people would pretend not to see you, go back to their Diet Cokes and beef jerky, then go out for sushi and grill their co-workers about who the visitors were. We're they potential buyers? Then: Mentally calulate vested shares, silently curse your co-workers for being idiots (but not as much as your CEO) who are holding your company back from ever being bought, continue sipping Diet Coke.That's about how that would go in Silicon Valley.
I thought about Larry in Silicon Valley. (Does not compute.)
I don't mean to be dramatic, but at that moment, I felt the hot sting of tears in my eyes. My breath caught in my throat. I felt about 2 inches tall. I wondered how it was that I ever formed my opinions about American car manufacturers in the first place. This was not crap. This was not trivial. This was people making something good. Good, and American.
"The computer knows if this guy misses a bolt," Larry was explaining. "The line will come to a stop. That car will not be allowed to move on until that bolt is in place. No one likes it when the line stops. It hurts morale."
"Our cars are thoroughly tested. If something is wrong, the arm that releases the car from the plant will not go up. The car will not leave until it is fixed," he continued.
Larry marched us up one side of the plant and down the other and 15 minutes later, our tour was done. I go the sense that he'd done this a thousand times, for media types and journalists, for big wigs, for ordinary folks. I also got the sense that he knew very well the impact the plant would have on a bunch of wise-ass bloggers who had probably never seen anything like that in their lives. We took off our vests, removed our safety glasses,and set our headsets in a heap. No one was talking. I think we were all a little awed by what we had just seen. "Thanks a lot for coming," Larry boomed. And he was gone.
I needed a moment to process what I had seen. Heck, I am just writing this post now. I've needed a month to process what I've seen. The last thing we did before we left Ford was shared everything we learned about what women want in a car. If you left a comment on my previous post, I made sure Ford heard you loud and clear:
hybrid (better, plug-in hybrid)
wagon (enough with the SUVs)
room for two car seats and an adult in back seat
durable upholstery that isn't the cheap crap
They wrote everything down. They took it all in. They were excited.
As we left, someone mentioned that she thought it was clever that Ford was able to put so many high-level women in front of us. "Was that on purpose?" she asked. Carrie Majeski, the woman who had been working for Ford on the 3 day schedule for the past 12 years, the one who got her MBA while working at Ford, the one who leads their sustainability efforts, smiled and explained that yes, Ford did make an effort to ensure that it was mostly women who were leading the sessions, but isn't it nice that Ford didn't have to look too far to find them?
What did I learn?
I learned how little I knew about the companies and people who build the cars we drive.
I learned that women can love with math and science and be curious about ways to use soybeans as raw building materials for cars.
I learned that I can't stop talking about everything I experienced at Ford. I am talking them up to whoever will listen. I find myself telling complete strangers about Ford's sustainability programs. I tell people I barely know that they should by a SHO with the two-toned interior. I know this is what Ford wants, but I learned I don't mind.
I learned that I like American cars, because I like the people who build them.
I learned that from that point on I would pay attention to the cars that passed me on the street, and if it was a Ford I would smile to myself as if a private joke was being shared by the car just for me.
I learned never to judge a book--or in this case, a car company--by it's cover.
Note: I was not compensated in any way to attend the event or to write this post nor was there any expectation that the bloggers at the Ford event would write posts. Since the Ford event was the day before BlogHer, Ford paid for one night at the hotel for the bloggers attending. Bloggers at the event were provided with a continental breakfast and a boxed sandwich lunch. I didn't write this post for a bagel and a cold turkey sandwich. I wrote it because it was one of the best experiences of my life and I wanted to share it.