DETROIT — Ford Motor Co. Fund’s longtime president, Jim Vella, will retire at year’s end, capping a career of more than 31 years with the automaker.
Mary Culler, chief of staff for Ford’s office of the executive chairman and development director for the company’s revitalization of Michigan Central Station in Detroit, will succeed Vella as head of the Ford Fund.
A 19-year veteran of Ford, she brings a deep background in government and community affairs, the company said.
“Whether it was a plant crisis or internal issue, Jim has been a trusted partner and adviser through an extraordinary era at Ford,” Executive Chairman Bill Ford said in a statement. “His devotion to helping others and commitment to expanding Ford’s role in the community have made us a leader in corporate philanthropy around the world.”
After leading the fund for the past 13 years, the time to step back seems right, said Vella, 63.
He took the reins of the fund in 2006 after a number of communications and public relations roles that started with serving as news producer in 1988 and culminated with serving as vice president of corporate public affairs and chief of staff for the executive chairman.
As vice president and chief of staff, Vella said, he played a role in overseeing large public relations issues for Ford, including an explosion at the company’s Rouge plant and the Firestone tire crisis.
He took on oversight of the Ford Fund after its budget had been cut from $70 million to $10 million, he said.
“We had to really rethink what we were going to do with the fund and how we were going to make it valuable to the company and the community at same time,” he said.
This year, the fund, which operates with an annual infusion from the automaker, has a budget of about $55 million, Vella said.
If he had to pick the thing he’s proudest of leading during his time with the fund, it would be the establishment of the Ford Resource Engagement Centers to help break the cycle of poverty in the communities around them.
Under his charge between 2013 and 2017, the Ford fund opened two Detroit community resource centers in Detroit. Today, a total of 21 nonprofits across the two centers offer services ranging from food assistance to job training, STEM education programs, accounting services, business development and quality of life programs like basketball camps and arts and culture.
A study commissioned by the fund found that the first Ford Resource and Engagement Center in southwest Detroit had assisted more than 80,000 people by 2016, returning $3 to the community for every $1 invested.
Under Vella’s direction, the fund has since opened three other FREC sites, in Romania, South Africa and Thailand.
Up until 2013, the fund wasn’t global, Vella said. But today, it’s active in 60 countries.
Auto dealer partnerships
At the same time, it has forged partnerships in 26 U.S. markets with its automotive dealers in each to coordinate philanthropic activity, whether focused on education, hunger assistance or the Ford Driving Skills for Life program, Vella said.
“Here in Southeast Michigan, it’s now the Ford fireworks, and we’re very involved in the Thanksgiving parade,” he said, with a float in the parade, donated Ford vehicles pulling the floats and the presenting sponsorship for the Hob Nobble Gobble fundraiser for The Parade Co.
To help make an impact both globally and in Detroit, where he grew up after his parents immigrated to the U.S. from Malta in 1950, “has just really been an honor for me,” Vella said.
Following his retirement at year’s end, he’ll be “Grandpa Uber” to his young grandchildren, but he also plans to stay engaged in helping the local nonprofit sector, he said.
He’s still working out the details but plans next year to launch the Vella Strategic Philanthropy Group to help nonprofits, foundations, corporations and philanthropist collaborate to solve complex social problems in new ways to produce greater impact.
“I just think there are a lot of ways to (better) leverage better…the resources,” he said, from board governance to communications to fundraising to building your brand to aligning your mission with others where it makes sense.
There’s also an emerging sector of wealthy individuals who want to make a difference but aren’t exactly sure how to do it, Vella said.
“In many cases what I hear is while they have a proactive approach to their investments, they don’t necessarily have a proactive approach on their philanthropy,” he said. “It’s more of a reactive approach when someone approaches them.”