09/25/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
Another man might have pleaded too much work and begged off. After all, managing one of the biggest tire recalls in automotive history ought to earn a guy a break. But there was Ford CEO Jacques Nasser, playing gracious host with his wife, Jennifer, at an Aug. 27 charity party on the spacious lawn of their Bloomfield Hills, Mich., mansion. It was the third such bash the Nassers have thrown since Ford's tire nightmare began Aug. 9. At one point during the festivities, recalls Detroit philanthropist Maggie Allesee, one of 150 on hand that night, "there was a thread hanging down from my husband Bob's coat. Jac took one of those little knives with a pair of scissors from his pocket and quietly bent over and snipped the thread off. Bob didn't even know. And Jac says to me, 'I'm sorry, I'm a perfectionist.' "
A perfectionist now in the executive hotseat. When Nasser's tough-talking but reassuring commercials began appearing on TV shortly after the Firestone-Ford mess erupted, all of America was wondering: Who is this guy? Known in the auto industry as a hard-charging, successful executive who maneuvered his way up the Ford corporate ladder, Nasser, 52, may become more well-known to the public for the giant fiasco he has on his hands. Since Bridgestone-Firestone's August recall of about 6.5 million tires, most of them on Ford Explorers, the car company's problems have gone into overdrive. Nasser, who became Ford's CEO only last year, has already appeared before Congress twice. He usually points the blame at tiremaker Firestone, saying, "This is a tire issue, not a vehicle issue."
The tire's defects, which have been linked to at least 88 deaths nationwide, have meant additional intense scrutiny for Nasser and his company. Ford could ultimately face civil or even criminal charges, not to mention a major consumer backlash. To top it off, recently released Ford documents indicate company officials may have covered up a dangerous ignition problem in cars made between 1983 and 1995. "I don't know of a car company that's had a disaster of this magnitude," says David E. Davis, an acquaintance of Nasser's and the founder of Automobile magazine. "This is huge."
And the test of a lifetime for the diminutive Nasser, a Lebanese-born, Australia-raised dynamo with a penchant for $3,000 Savile Row suits, Swiss watches and high-end wheels (he has owned a 1970 Aston Martin DBS, a 1966 Mustang convertible and three Explorers). It is Nasser, not Ford chairman Bill Ford Jr. (Henry Ford's great-grandson), who is frontman for his company's woes in those TV ads (reported cost so far: $15 million) and before Congress.
"He's a very dynamic presenter," allows Rep. W.J. Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House subcommittee on consumer protection, which heard Nasser's Sept. 6 testimony that the company "won't sleep" until the tire problems are resolved. "But it would not be correct to say that Ford was exonerated." Nor have Nasser's commercials likely changed many minds. "I don't think the ads come out fast enough or strong enough," says Tony Bucci, CEO of the Pittsburgh advertising agency MARC. Says Melissa Webb, 30, a Cocoa, Fla., mother of three who filed suit against Ford after her husband died in an Explorer last year: "It's a little too late for them to say I'm sorry."
For Nasser, Ford's trial by tire comes as a sobering turn in a string of successes. A Ford lifer, he upped productivity by slashing work forces (earning the nickname Jac the Knife) at both Ford of Australia, which he ran from 1990 to 1993, and Ford of Europe, where he held sway from 1993 to 1994. As passionate about design as he is about finance, he introduced Europe's compact Ka and made it a top seller. And since Nasser blew into Detroit six years ago as chief of product development, Ford has taken the lead in the sport-utility market, becoming the world's most profitable automaker. "He's a very forceful, dynamic leader," says Dave Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. "Everyone admires his intelligence, energy and focus."
All three were on display early. As a child in a working-class suburb of Melbourne, where his immigrant father, Abdo, ran a takeout food shop, Jac would sit in his yard by the hour identifying the make and models of passing cars. "I'd be shattered when I didn't know one," he told Business Week in 1995. Abdo had come from Lebanon in 1951 with his wife, Najla, and children Jac, Jamie (now 51 and a Melbourne-area nightclub owner) and Betty, now 39. Says Abdo, 89, of the young Jac: "He loved being around cars, and he loved all sports—football, baseball. He would help at the shop. He could do anything."
After getting a degree in business at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in 1968, Nasser landed a spot as a Ford financial analyst. Marrying Jennifer, his high school sweetheart, in the early 1970s, he climbed the Ford ladder in the Philippines, Great Britain, South America, Mexico and South Africa before returning to run Ford of Australia. In 1985, while overseeing Ford's Argentina plant, Nasser and his staff were taken hostage by a group of workers for a night; they were ultimately released unharmed. "That incident marked him deeply," says fellow hostage Rodolfo Ceretti, public relations director of Ford Argentina. "Even if there had been conflicts with the unions in the U.S., they had never gone as far as taking the staff hostage."
Whether or not the experience made Nasser tougher with underlings, there's no doubt he's a challenging boss. Says Automobile's Davis: "He's not going to cut you any slack if you can't run at the same speed he does." Which is a mile a minute. Fluent in four languages, Nasser gets to the office between 6 and 6:30 a.m. and squeezes extra business travel into holidays. "He's a workaholic," says his friend Ron Walker, former lord mayor of Melbourne. Ken Kohrs, a recently retired Ford vice president, told The Detroit News, "I have probably been to every country in Europe and Asia [with Nasser], and I never had a chance to dip my toe in the pool."
Such high performance has taken a toll on Nasser's life with Jennifer, 52, and their four children, Jacqueline, 23, Catherine, 22, Guy, 21, and Justine, 19. Although he is said to be close to his kids, Jennifer told The Detroit News last year that Jac missed all of their births. "My husband was an absentee parent," she said. "I try not to be bitter, but sometimes I am."
So bitter, in fact, that Jennifer, a popular powerhouse on the Detroit charity circuit, filed for divorce last March. Seeking to maintain the lifestyle of the "super-rich and powerful" to which she had grown accustomed—Nasser's compensation totaled $13.9 million last year—and citing her husband's "controlling manner," she sought an injunction barring him from cleaning out their accounts. "Everybody was shocked," says society pal Maggie Allesee, "because there never seemed to be anything wrong."
In July, Jennifer quietly withdrew the petition. Says Allesee: "They're very much together and seeming very happy. [But] it's hard being married to an executive who heads up a worldwide company."
Never more so than now. Nasser is taking his company's crisis "very personally," says Tom Baughman, engineering director for Ford's North American Truck Operations. "It's the way you feel when one of your family members passes away." When Allesee commiserated with Nasser recently, he told her simply, "It hasn't been fun."
Still, most think the Ford phenom will weather the storm by doing what he does best: working harder than just about anyone else and driving his staff to do the same. "We are dedicated to our customers—that's what runs through our bloodstreams," Nasser told Congress. Those customers will be his ultimate judge.
Champ Clark in Chicago, Margaret Nelson in Minneapolis, Susan Gray in Washington, D.C., Dennis Passa and Di Webster in Melbourne, Peter Hudson in Buenos Aires, Lori Rozsa in Miami, Steve Erwin in New York City and Pete Norman in London