Bill Ford and the Fortune 500 connect with entrepreneurs

November 11, 2010, 8:16 PM UTC

By Patricia Sellers

At Ernst & Young’s Strategic Growth Forum in Palm Desert, California, I’m with 1,700 entrepreneurs, investors and other business folks who, you would think, would prefer to schmooze with celebs like Google’s (GOOG) Sergey Brin,’s (AMZN) Jeff Bezos or other tech icons. It’s odd that the Masters of the Industrial Universe are the stars here, sharing business and career lessons.

At dinner Tuesday night, I sat with two of the top-billed speakers: General Electric (GE) vice chairman John Rice and Bob Nardelli, the former CEO of Home Depot (HD) and Chrysler. Nardelli is now busy revamping hard-asset businesses — like paper and gun companies — for private equity giant Cerberus. Rice, meanwhile, is getting ready to move to Hong Kong to accelerate GE’s growth in developing markets and, he told me, spread the authority that inevitably concentrates close to headquarters at GE and most other big companies.

Most Fortune 500 bosses are itching to act entrepreneurially, and the wisest one here may be be Bill Ford, who pulled off one of the the greatest turnarounds in corporate history. The 53-year-old great-grandson of Ford Motor’s (F) founder told interviewer Charlie Rose about going to the board four years ago and saying, “I need help.” Bill Ford was then chairman, CEO and president of the giant family business. He was willing to cede any of his titles because, as he told the Ford directors, “I’m going to be with this company for the rest of my life.”

Bill Ford and the board recruited Alan Mulally from Boeing (BA). By slashing costs and radically simplifying operations, Mulally delivered $7 billion in profits in the first three quarters of 2010 — vs. $14.6 billion in losses in 2008. Bill Ford’s lesson? “If you don’t take advantage of the worst times to do the most distasteful things, you’re not going to get them done.”

He added, “If anything good has come out of this, there’s a recognition in Washington and on Main Street that a manufacturing base matters a lot.” Ford said he’s bullish on U.S. manufacturing “getting respect” again — and the company is doing its part. The new Explorer is being produced in Chicago and will be exported to 93 countries.

The audience yesterday gave Bill Ford a standing ovation. And readers, it’s worth noting, voted Mulally 2010 Businessperson of the Year. He garnered 94% of the votes in a face-off with Apple’s (AAPL) Steve Jobs. The reader poll is one component in Fortune’s selection of Businessperson of the Year, which will be announced Nov. 18th. But regardless of the winner, it’s clear: America’s industrial bosses are getting back their mojo.