Alan Mulally and Rick Smith on Business and Golf

Ford CEO Alan Mulally and teaching pro Rick Smith of TreeTops Resort in Gaylord headlined the recent annual meeting of the Golf Association of Michigan (GAM)…

Ford CEO Alan Mulally and teaching pro Rick Smith of TreeTops Resort in Gaylord headlined the recent annual meeting of the Golf Association of Michigan (GAM) at Franklin Hills CC. Combined they spoke for almost two hours and everyone in the crowd of 100-plus acted is if they couldn’t get enough. Smith’s talk was energetic, personable and filled with great golf stories — while Mulally spoke so casually and without prepared notes to a crowd of business men and women that it seemed more as if he were sitting by the fireplace smoking a pipe with friends.

First the bad news for the golf lovers in the room: Mulally was understandably asked if Ford would be getting back into golf sponsorship as it did with a prior 14-year run of the Ford Senior Players Championship. Mulally quipped, “probably not — next question.” After some nervous laughter settled across the room, Mulally (about a 9-or-10 handicap he said) went on to explain how much he personally enjoys playing golf — especially in Michigan — and loves the fact Phil Mickelson still drives a Navigator and Expedition. Unfortunately a leaner and more-focused Ford brand doesn’t foresee a bountiful connection for golf and its marketing plans.

Mulally shared many stories ranging from the first time Bill Ford, Jr. called him out of the blue, no pun intended, and his family asked when they’d be moving to Dearborn — to testifying at the U.S. Congressional hearings about automotive bailouts. Regarding the latter, Mulally said that in a matter of one week the whole country found out how bad off financially some in the auto industry were, while simultaneously consumers “started checking out Ford.”  In the heyday of consumers’ realization Ford was not asking for “precious taxpayer dollars” Mulally said surveys indicated 74 precent of Americans indicated they would consider a Ford as their next purchase. “Could you ever imagine a marketing manager coming to me with a plan like that?” he said with his broad, infectious smile.

He continued talking about how Ford’s new focus on discipline, trust and teamwork has been the backbone of its turnaround, including a razor sharp focus on Ford that spelled the sell-off of various non-Ford brands. He frequently pulled a small card out of the breast pocket of his Ford Racing leather jacket that simply outlined the areas the company team needs to concentrate. My favorite line was, “seek to understand before you seek to be understood.”

Smith spoke before he flew off to attend Phil Mickelson’s induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame in Florida. He reminisced about the great times shared with Phil as a teacher, which continue today as the pair is designing several new golf courses together in China. Speaking of which, Smith said the growing interest in golf by the Chinese could just as easily spill over into Michigan. Since China will never be able to build enough courses for the population due to government restrictions, one of the course owners Smith and Mickelson are working with also believes Chinese golfers will want to visit U.S. courses where we have excess inventory. And Smith wants to steer them right into Pure Michigan.

An audience member asked Smith to comment on the recent book released by Hank Haney that delves into Tiger Woods’ life. The question didn’t get Smith’s ire, but the book sure did. Smith, who admitted to living more low key the past three years to help his pre-teen daughter through some medical issues, was very passionate about why the personal relationship must be protected between player and teacher. Smith refuses to even read the book.

Smith also shares a passion of mine — one which resembles our support of the Tee it Forward initiative, all in the name of making golf more fun. Smith suggests growing the game will require golf purists and teachers to recognize that everyone has different needs from golf. He said scoring should be the last priority; rather, golf should be communicated in ways that keep things simple, fun and with real chances to learn the game before someone gets turned off by bad scores or rigid, textbook style golf.

“If there is one element missing the most in golf, it’s fun,” Smith said.