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Yarbrough: Georgian is leading Fords rebound
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Bennie Fowler represents everything that is good about this country, so it is not surprising that American-headquartered Ford Motor Co. has him in a key position to help the company in its turnaround efforts.

Fowler is group vice president for global quality at Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, Mich., reporting directly to Alan Mulally, Ford's CEO. Fowler heads a global staff that works with the company's labs, design studios and factories around the world to implement standardized quality processes in the development and manufacturing of all Ford vehicles. Needless to say, his is no small job.

Fowler, a native Georgian, is living proof that hard work, determination and education can bring you success, no matter what your background. He grew up in Augusta as one of seven children in government-subsidized housing and attended J. W. Josey High School -- "the Screaming Eagles," he is quick to point out -- at a time when Georgia's schools were first being integrated.

Despite the turmoil of those days, he was an honor student, a member of the marching band and an outstanding athlete. When he wasn't studying or playing ball, he was selling eggs door to door. There wasn't much time to get into trouble on the streets of Augusta. Fowler's father, a former Army sergeant, ran a tight ship.

An athletic scholarship took Bennie Fowler to Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, one of the oldest historically black universities in the nation, where he played basketball and baseball. He was good enough to gain a tryout with the Cincinnati Reds baseball team, but business, specifically the automobile business, beckoned 30 years ago, and he hasn't looked back since.

Fowler had stints with General Motors and Chrysler before joining Ford in 1990, moving up through the ranks to vice president in 2003. A couple of years ago, Fowler was given the job of ensuring global quality.

He speaks with pride about improvements that have been made in the quality of Ford products. Last year, the rating agency J.D. Power and Associates placed 14 Ford models in the top three of their respective quality rankings, unmatched by any other manufacturer. Ford also received high marks from Consumer Reports magazine and other research groups.

"If consumers have a quality product to drive, they are going to spend less time getting them repaired. That keeps owners happy and loyal and saves us a lot of money that we can spend elsewhere," Fowler said.

Despite the fact that the "Big Three" American automobile manufacturers -- General Motors, Chrysler Corporation and Ford -- have been hemorrhaging money over the past several years as gas prices have gone up and the American public's desire for gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs has gone down, Fowler is bullish about Ford's future, including plans to introduce smaller, more fuel-efficient cars from Europe.

In addition, the company will speed up the introduction of new fuel-saving engines, which are designed to deliver more power and better mileage. It will also introduce new hybrids over the next several years.

"We've got everything we need to succeed," Fowler says. "We have the money to see us through the hard times. Our people are focused. We are turning out quality products that are reliable and fuel efficient and more environmentally friendly." Credit some of that to the skills and talents that Georgia's Bennie Fowler brings to the job.

If you haven't heard of Fowler before, you have now. The man is on the top rung of a major international corporation and up to his eyeballs in dramatic changes that can spell survival or doom for his company.

To all the young individuals who have been told that the odds are stacked against them for whatever reason and that they can't achieve success in our society, Fowler should be your role model. Nobody gave him anything. He worked his way to the top. You can do it, too.

Stay in school. Keep out of trouble. Work hard. That is what Bennie Fowler did, and that is why I wanted you to know about him. Ford is lucky to have him. Augusta, and the rest of us, should be proud to call him a native son.

Dick Yarbrough is a North Georgia resident whose column appears Saturdays and on; Web site.

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