DETROIT — A prodigal son of the Ford automobile dynasty who waged a bitter and highly publicized battle with his family in the late 1970s in a failed bid for a seat on Ford's board of directors has finally found a place with the company. On Monday, he started as a management trainee in the parts and service division.
Benson Ford Jr., 36, a great-grandson of Henry Ford I and nephew of Henry Ford II, is now working at the company for the first time. He has entered an orientation program in Ford's parts and service operations in Dearborn, Mich., a company spokesman said.
Benson's new role as a Ford employee comes seven years after he fought a court battle against his mother and other Ford family members in an effort to overturn the will of his late father, Benson Ford Sr., a brother of Henry Ford II.
After Benson Sr. died in 1978, his son sought access to a $7.5-million trust fund established for him in the will. At the same time, Benson also challenged his uncle Henry II's control of the company and openly appealed to shareholders at the 1979 annual meeting to vote for him as a director.
"I do not intend to fade away. I intend to contribute to the growth (of Ford Motor Co.)," he said after losing his bid for a board seat.
But Benson, one of the richest Ford heirs, began his reconciliation two years ago with the large Ford family, which still controls Ford Motor through its voting power in a special class of Ford stock issued just for family members.
After living in the Los Angeles area in the 1970s and early 1980s and involving himself in a number of failed business ventures with his former therapist and mentor, Louis Fuentes, Benson returned to the Detroit area in 1984. He married and bought a home in suburban Grosse Pointe from his cousin Edsel Ford Jr., the only son of Henry II, and dropped all of his old lawsuits against the family.
He also filed suit, in a case still pending in Los Angeles, against Fuentes alleging that he was misled for years by Fuentes into pouring millions of dollars into bad business deals. He has also told his family that Fuentes wanted Benson to get greater access to his inheritance and was behind his legal challenges to the family and the company.
"Benson is very repentant," said Pierre Heftler, the Ford family's attorney. "He feels he got some terrible advice" from Fuentes.
Benson, whose personal fortune was once estimated at $20 million, has alleged in his suit against Fuentes that the therapist induced him to turn over more than $10 million in assets to businesses controlled by Fuentes and that Benson was then kept on a small weekly allowance by Fuentes. In his suit, Benson is demanding "to get his money back" from Fuentes, Heftler said.
Benson refused to comment Wednesday on his decision to join the company. Other Ford family members, including Edsel Jr., also declined to comment. A Ford spokesman noted that one reason some family members don't want to talk about Benson or other personal matters is that they have been upset by the embarrassing revelations about the Ford family described in Robert Lacey's just released book, "Ford: The Men and the Machine."
Included in the book is a description of just how bizarre Benson's fight with his family became. In the midst of his challenge to his uncle, Benson attended a private function for the family with a hidden microphone taped to his chest. After the listening device was detected by the electronic surveillance equipment protecting the house of his uncle, William Clay Ford, Benson was pulled aside by Henry II and William Clay, and the bug was ripped off.