DEARBORN - Bill Coughlin, president and CEO of Ford Global Technologies, is a self-described believer that nice guys can be successful – even in a tough business like the automotive industry.
“I have two rules that I live by from a management standpoint,” said Coughlin, who is responsible for protecting and leveraging intellectual property for Ford and its subsidiaries worldwide.
“One is to exceed expectations,” he said. “The second is to bring out the best in everyone around you. If you follow those two rules it’s hard to go wrong. You can make a difference in the lives of your colleagues and ultimately the company and the industry if you do it right. And you can do it with a smile on your face.”
Coughlin has received many accolades throughout his career. Most recently, he was honored with the prestigious “Entrepreneur of the Year” award from Automation Alley, a Troy, Mich.-based technology business association.
When asked how he reacted when he learned of the award, Coughlin said it was “a big thrill.”
“It’s pretty surprising that an award for ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’ would be to someone in a large corporation and then really surprising that it would be to a lawyer in a large corporation,” he said. “I think ultimately it was a vote by our local community that they really appreciate that Ford is entrepreneurial and they want to inspire more employees here to be innovative.”
In addition to his work at Ford, Coughlin is a member of the board of directors for the Intellectual Property Owners Association and an adjunct professor at Thomas M. Cooley Law School, where he teaches e-commerce law and trade secret law.
Coughlin began his career as an electrical engineer and later decided to become a patent attorney.
“I feel this need to be creative and expressive and I just felt that in engineering I didn’t know if I’d have the freedom that I ultimately wanted and needed,” he said. “Law gave me a chance to be creative and expressive in a different way.”
After he graduated from law school, Coughlin served as a partner for 17 years in the private practice of Harness, Dickey & Pierce, one of the largest law firms in Michigan for intellectual property law.
He served as the chief intellectual property lawyer for DaimlerChrysler prior to joining as president and CEO of Ford Global Technologies 13 years ago.
“I think the culture at Ford is really terrific,” he said. “Frankly, it comes from an American kind of optimism and openness to explore that you don’t necessarily see in foreign-based companies to be honest. So the culture here was a much better fit for me.”
Coughlin says there are two recent achievements in his career at Ford that he would point to as his proudest. One is facilitating the development of TechShop in Detroit, a do-it-yourself workshop for inventors.
“Calling up a Silicon Valley company after reading about them in the New York Times and saying you need to come to Detroit and I think I can make that happen is not a normal thing for almost any employee to be able to do,” he said. “Being able to bring TechShop to Detroit to not only help Ford be more innovative but this region be more innovative was really, really cool and a lot of fun.”
Coughlin says his second proudest achievement is the recent Ford acquisition of Livio, a Ferndale, Mich.-based software development startup.
“This is the first company Ford has bought in a long, long time and it was a lot of fun for me to go in front of the company officers and say I’m here to ask for permission to buy a software company. You can’t but have a smile on your face when you say those words,” he said. “Livio is a small but nimble software company and what I hope is that they’re going to bring a little bit of Silicon Valley right here to our own backyard.”
Coughlin says one of his most important roles at Ford is to help inspire employees to think like entrepreneurs.
“My advice to everyone is, don’t hold back,” he said. “A lot of people look at their jobs as ‘what are my responsibilities and objectives?’ All of that is true. You’ve got to do all those things but look around and see how you can leverage the responsibilities you have with the resources that are within your power to use.”
Once you start thinking like an innovator with an inventive kind of mind, says Coughlin, you can’t turn it off.
“Problems become an opportunity to create something new to overcome them,” he explained. “When you bring it out of a person, they see the joy in being able to solve a problem and it’s life-changing for them. Frankly, some of the best innovations will change people’s lives. It’s the kind of standard I’d like Ford to be able to live up to. Can we change people’s lives and how can we do it again?”
Coughlin encourages all Ford employees to actively participate in bringing new ideas to the forefront in one of two ways: by submitting an idea for an improvement to the Ford Idea Place at www.ideaplace.ford.com or by submitting invention disclosures at https://web.anaqua.ford.com/.
“We get over 2,000 invention disclosures a year and we’re trying to make more because we want to be the most innovative auto company there is,” he said. “We want to be leaders and you have to be innovative to lead.”