She came out of nowhere. Technically, it was Southampton on New York's Long Island. But to the top brass at Ford Motor Co.'s world headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., it might as well have been somewhere in East Timor.
And her credentials were largely unremarkable: She had worked at a Madison Avenue ad agency, owned an upscale children's boutique (Little Charlotte's Place), and had just received her business degree from New York University.
But she had a key to the executive suite. It wouldn't necessarily get her inside, but it would get her the necessary introductions.
The key was her last name: Ford.
So in 1995, they gave Elena Ford, the great-great-granddaughter of Henry Ford, a midlevel job in the marketing department. And they waited. Maybe she would be satisfied. Maybe she would be scared off and run back to the Hamptons. After all, no female member of the Ford family had ever worked for the company.
In less than eight years, largely through her own determination, Ford, 36, has worked her way up the ladder. A mother of four who hates to fly, she has logged thousands of miles to meet with automobile dealers - including meetings this weekend in the Tampa Bay area to help celebrate the company's 100 anniversary - and she is now the director of business strategy for Ford's international operations. Wednesday night she dined with dealers at Tampa's University Club.
She has been credited with initiating the turnaround of Ford sibling Mercury. In 2001, when she was named Mercury's marketing manager, the division had no new cars on the drawing board and morale was low. She began an aggressive campaign to design new cars, and then brought the plan to life. The company now has plans for Mercury versions of a minivan, a small SUV and two sedans.
"It was a team effort," she insisted.
It's business, yes. But it's also personal.
"Growing up in New York, I would sit on my mother's lap and steer the car," Ford said Wednesday from Michigan. "We used to drive the half-mile of country road from my aunt's house to my mother's house.
"I see that now as just ingrained in me."
To her, cars are more than modes of transportation. Among other things, they make statements and invoke memories. Ford remembered coming home from school on her 16th birthday and finding a new blue and silver Mustang sitting in the garage. There was a big blue bow tied on it.
"It was so cool," she said. "And I really think today, in the automotive business, we don't make a big enough deal out of buying a car. We take it for granted how many cars we'll sell. Ford does 10,000 a day. But buying a car is a huge deal for people."
Her father, Greek shipping executive Stavros Niarchos, divorced her mother shortly after she was born and was not a central figure in her life. At age 10, she decided to drop her last name and become Elena Ford.
She could have stayed in Southampton and run the store. She could have hosted the parties and jetted off to France whenever the mood struck.
But Ford is the largest publicly owned car manufacturer still controlled by the family that founded it. And she felt the same pull her cousin, Ford CEO William Clay Ford Jr., felt. The family business.
"And I have this type A personality and want to always be involved in things," she said.
She remarried in 1996 to Joe Rippolone, a plumber whose parents live in St. Petersburg. Her children are all age 10 and younger.
And if the stress of this weekend gets to be too much, she can retreat to the Unity - a 131-foot blue and white yacht anchored in the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina.
"I'm having a ball," she said. "I can't wait to get to work and can't wait to get home."
She has said she would like to be on Ford's board of directors one day. But she insists she will earn her seat. And while she may not have won over everyone at Ford headquarters just yet, she has gained the respect of most of the company's hardest to please employees. The car dealers.
"She's definitely had a very positive impact," said Frank Scarritt, owner of Scarritt Lincoln-Mercury in Seminole, one of the oldest Lincoln-Mercury dealerships in the country. "She used her intelligence and influence to redirect the Mercury brand and get a lot of things done.
"She is very competent and qualified.
"And it wasn't just her name."The Ford family
Elena Ford, born in 1966, is the daughter of Charlotte Ford and the late Stavros Niarchos, a Greek shipping magnate.First generation
Henry Ford (1863-1947) and Clara Bryant Ford (1866-1950)Second generation
Edsel Ford (1893-1943)Third generation
Henry II (1917-1987), Benson (1919-78), Josephine (1923- ), William Clay (1925- )Fourth generation
Henry II's children: Charlotte (1941), Anne (1943) and Edsel II (1948)
Benson's children: Benson Jr. (1949), Lynn (1951)
Josephine's children (with Walter Buhl Ford): Walter Buhl III (1943), Eleanor (1946), Josephine (1949), Alfred Brush (1950)
William Clay's children: Martha (1948), Sheila (1951), William Clay Jr. (1957), Elizabeth (1961)
- Source: Detroit Free Press