homosexuality affected his success at Ford can only be guessed
at. Though it was the subject of water cooler gossip, he can
recall only one potentially damaging incident. Yet Gilmour had
two shots at CEO and missed both times. In 1989 he lost out to
Harold Poling, despite being the choice of incumbent CEO Donald
Petersen. And in 1992 he was passed over for Alex Trotman,
despite being Poling's apparent favorite.
he missed for the second time, Gilmour decided to retire and
left the company at the beginning of 1995 at age 60. He is on
the boards of five large corporations (Detroit Edison, Dow
Chemical, Prudential Insurance, US West, and Whirlpool) and
oversees his personal foundation, the $4.3 million Gilmour Fund.
Last December a small Detroit newspaper linked Gilmour to his
charitable activities for gay and lesbian causes, thus making
him the first high-ranking auto executive to be publicly
identified as gay. Recently he met with FORTUNE's Alex Taylor
III in Dearborn, Mich., to discuss his career at Ford and his
secret life outside the company.
the time I reached my early 40s, my career was going fine, but
my social life had gradually diminished because people of my age
had gotten married and started families. I didn't feel sorry for
myself. I loved what I was doing. Ford was expanding overseas
and growing domestically by creating such operations as Ford
Credit. Was everything perfect? Heavens, no. There were plenty
of days when I came home and said, "This isn't
rewarding." But I very much liked the business and the
people. And I didn't really give much conscious attention to a
broad social life.
realization that I am gay was not any sudden revelation. I
didn't wake up one morning and say, "This is me." But
I was thinking as I got older, "Hmmm." I had never
married, never gotten engaged, never been serious, though I came
close to being serious twice. So I started thinking it through,
picked up some books, starting reading and reflecting about the
experiences of gay people, and gradually concluded that this was
me. My first thought was, there is very little I can do about
this. My second thought was, this is a taboo subject.
didn't tell my superiors or subordinates or colleagues. As time
has passed, business has become more accepting of homosexuality.
But it is still a controversial subject. And businesses in
general don't want their executives to be controversial.
people think this is not fair; I think it is the reality of the
world we live in. In the past 20 or 30 years, we have been
moving away from the glamorous CEO and focusing more on the
products and services a company offers. And in doing that, a
controversial executive--either because of his political beliefs
or because he hasn't paid his income taxes or whatever--is a
diversion. Companies don't want diversions. They don't want
executive personality being discussed; they want the products to
gay issue is so much a generational issue--maybe it always will
be, although I hope not. There are many exceptions to this, but
the older the people, the less open they are; and the younger
the people, the more open they are.
had hoped that I would become chief financial officer of Ford,
and I got the job at the beginning of 1986. I was elected to the
board of directors at the same time. During 1986 I said to both
Don Petersen, who was the chairman, and Red Poling, who was the
president, that I did not wish to have any higher-level job. I
was very pleased to be CFO and hoped they were pleased. They had
enough people running for higher office, and I thought I could
make the best contribution doing the job with it totally in
mind. They told me that they'd worry about succession--I didn't
did not want to be a candidate for CEO--but not because I was
gay and feared exposure. CFO was a job I had looked forward to
and hoped I would get, and was fortunate enough to get. I
figured I would be CFO for six to eight years and then retire. I
had a belief, which I still do, that people can stay in a job
too long--in part because they may run out of ideas and vitality
but more importantly because of the need for vibrancy in the
organization. Bringing younger people along and giving them
opportunities doesn't work as well if the top-level jobs are
filled for a long while.
then I had been going to gay events for several years. It was a
very gradual process. I would stick my toe in the water, so to
speak. Then I would back away because of the fear of publicity.
As my career progressed, I was more in the media and making more
public appearances. People would recognize me because they had
seen me in the media or in meetings. I was not concerned that
people would do something directly adverse. I was concerned
about general chitchat or rumors.
gay complicated my life. Gay people don't lie; they dissemble.
"What did you do this past weekend?" people will ask.
"Well, I did a few things, and gee, I was busy and wasn't
it hot and the Tigers won" or something. You give, if you
will, a little answer. Not the wrong answer but a partial
time went on, I became interested in how I could contribute to
gay causes. Although I was a typical corporate executive in
terms of my conservative economic beliefs, I was becoming more
liberal on social issues. I set up a trust under another name,
and I used that as a way of giving money and of subscribing to
publications so that I could be more current about what was
going on in the gay world. When I was on vacation, I learned
more. I went to more openly gay places like Provincetown, Mass.,
a couple of times; and Saugatuck, Mich., a couple of times; and
Key West, Fla.; and to the big cities: New York, Chicago, Los
Angeles, and San Francisco. Seeing how gay people lived and
played in places like this would surprise people who are
anti-gay. Our world is not that much different from the straight
would sometimes run into Ford people at places like those. And
we would both be cautious because everyone else had essentially
the same concern that I did: We are what we are, but it may be
detrimental if Ford officially knows this. So work must be kept
separate from private life. When people asked me about my
marital status, I had begun using the response, "I married
Ford Motor Co." I don't know whether that worked with the
media, but it certainly served as a way to get on to the next
question. But I'm sure there were murmurings inside Ford and
outside Ford. That's life.
worried me most about coming out was the effect on Ford. It
could be damaging for Ford, not just for the potential
controversy but because there would be some who would say,
"I'm not going to do business with them." I was afraid
of being a diversion away from the business of Ford. I'd be a
lightning rod. I was also afraid in a personal sense that I
would be marginalized. I'd be a one-issue person or "he's
one of those." I didn't want the adjective "gay"
always put in front of my name.
was only one unfortunate event at the company. I got information
one day early in 1991 that a reporter had been told by a Ford
executive that I was gay. The reporter was working on a story
that might have been negative about the company, and he was told
instead to come to grips with the issue that I was gay and that
the Ford family took a very dim view of that.
talked to the reporter, and he confirmed that he had been told
that. I went to Phil Benton, who was then president, and told
him what had happened. I also went to Red Poling, who was the
chairman and CEO. I said if something like this ever happens
again, or some words like that, the individual in question
should be punished or fired. Red met with the person who was
said to have done this, and he denied it. That was the end of
it. But I am glad I made an issue of it. At least in my mind, it
put people on notice that I was not going to take this kind of
stuff lying down.
Red Poling nor Phil Benton asked me whether I was gay, and I
didn't tell. I did tell them that I would never do anything that
would embarrass the company. The subject of sexual orientation
was not discussed at Ford. Did we discuss our personal tax
situation? No. Did we discuss our religion? No. Did we discuss
how a marriage was going? No.
the late 1980s I had a change of heart: I thought I was the best
person to be the next CEO of Ford. In late 1991 or early 1992,
Red told me that I was on track to be the next CEO. I was
excited and pleased. Yes, I was worried about my private life,
but I thought I would tackle the CEO job and worry about my
private life after the CEO stint was over. Being CEO would be a
seven-day-a-week job, surely. There would be no opportunity for
any personal life.
it was not to be. I was told in July 1992 that the board had
selected Alex Trotman to be CEO. Red told me that the conclusion
was that compared with Alex, I didn't have broad operating
experience, which was true. I asked Red, "Is there any
particular trouble?" And he said, "No." I said I
was disappointed, I thought Alex was a good choice, and I'd be
leaving. A couple of outside directors called and said, "We
want you to stay; you are important to the company." Red
said that was the sentiment of Bill Ford Sr. too. So I didn't
leave until the beginning of 1995, 2 1/2 years later.
never know why I was passed over, but I think Red left the
succession question to the board and did not take a strong
stand. Whether being gay hurt my chances, I honestly don't know.
I've heard some people say it did, but I doubt it. I may be
naive, but the way I feel won't do any good one way or the other
for that one incident, there were never any outward signs of
discrimination toward me. Now, no big company is a monolith, and
there are people at Ford who have been discriminated against.
Some of the plant or office situations are not pleasant at all.
I was perhaps lucky in that nothing happened around me.
Alex took over as CEO in November 1993, and I became vice
chairman. Two things quickly became clear to me. One, Alex
sooner or later would be handling what I was doing--financial
planning, strategy review, a lot of outside
responsibilities--because that is clearly the purview of the
CEO. And second, if my Ford career was going to come to an end
with this position (enjoyable as it was), I wanted to move on to
all the other things I could do with my life.
delighted with retirement: It is a good life. There are a lot of
hours involved with corporate and nonprofit boards but less
stress--and a heck of a lot less pay. I don't get more
satisfaction, but I get good satisfaction. I'm on five corporate
boards, a couple of advisory boards, and I'm chairman of Henry
Ford Health System, which includes the biggest HMO in Michigan.
I also do fundraising for educational and cultural institutions.
that the risks were less, I became more comfortable with the
whole gayness issue. I went to more events, got more involved in
issues, met more people. It was still a slow process for me. I
gradually would take steps, small and even unsteady ones, and
understand more about homosexuality and more about myself.
Gradually I would do more and feel more comfortable about it,
and more comfortable about me and about other people.
met Eric Jirgens at a dinner party in Grosse Pointe, Mich., in
the spring of 1994. It was a very nice buffet dinner, and after
filling my plate I went into the living room to find a place to
sit. I sat in a chair, and Eric was on the adjacent sofa and we
started talking. I thought, "Hey, this is a fascinating
fellow." Eight, ten, 12 months later we decided to form a
permanent relationship. For most gay people there is not a
specific event; there is not an engagement and obviously not a
marriage--not yet, anyway. So the dates are a little fuzzier
than they are in the straight community.
some time it had been clear to me that philanthropy for gay
causes was something that was badly needed and was something I
could do. The facts are fascinating and sobering at the same
time. They show that charitable giving to gay and lesbian
organizations is less than 1% of all the contributions given in
America. And if you leave out AIDS, it is roughly 0.03%. Now,
that doesn't mean that gay and lesbian people aren't benefited
by the United Way and the Red Cross, for example--of course they
are. But there are numerous specific needs not being met,
whether it is youth, or older people, or civil rights, or coming
out, or health issues aside from AIDS, or discrimination.
the end of 1996, about two years after I retired, I agreed to
appear on a panel at the annual conference of the Council of
Michigan Foundations. I had become an open fundraiser for a gay
and lesbian charity called the HOPE (Helping Others through
Partnerships and Education) Fund, which is an affiliate of the
Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan. I was asked to
be on the panel to talk about gay and lesbian giving. At first I
thought, "Uh-oh"; then I thought, "This is what
you're supposed to be doing; go do it."
appeared on the panel, and I agreed to be interviewed by a local
gay publication. I didn't make any big pronouncements. But the
local papers and the radio stations and tv stations got hold of
the interview, and there was plenty of publicity. I had been
outed. I had thought that two years after retirement, the world
wouldn't really care about Allan Gilmour. And I think to a
considerable extent that's true. What it cared about was that I
had had a series of highly visible positions at a big,
important, well-known company and that I was gay.
met with Alex Trotman the next day. And I called the chairmen of
the five companies on whose boards I serve and Henry Ford Health
System's CEO and other organizations. Obviously I would have
called them in advance of publication had I known. I got strong,
gratifying support from everybody.
then my life has changed, but it hasn't changed in any bad ways.
To the contrary, I am free, and I can be myself. Of course this
is a controversial subject--the last acceptable prejudice, as
someone wrote. Some people are concerned about it, and probably
some people are upset about it. Who knows what people are
saying? The ones that have said anything to me have said,
"Don't worry," "It's good," "I'm glad
you did it," "I admire you," things of that kind.
is the role of corporations in all this? Ford has a large gay
community, but it is scattered and mostly invisible. Ford Globe,
an organization of gay and lesbian people, was formed about
three years ago. It has 177 members. It is officially recognized
by Ford. The Globe people meet with Ford management to talk
about their situation, their concerns. Last year Alex Trotman
issued a policy letter saying that sexual orientation is
protected in the antidiscrimination policies of Ford Motor Co.
The situation isn't perfect, but it is improving.
should corporations be involved in gay issues? To start with,
there are gay and lesbian customers. I don't know what
percentage of the population is gay or lesbian, but various
studies have shown it to be between 3% and 10%. That is a lot of
potential customers. Businesses that want as much sales volume
as possible will pay attention to gays and lesbians.
worry for any company, of course, is the potential for backlash.
I believe the fear of most backlashes is overdone. Except for
the "true believers," few people are going to spend
the time and energy trying to figure out what they should not be
buying. If the Southern Baptists are against Disney because of
Disney's treatment of gays and lesbians, it is going to be darn
hard to figure out what not to do each day so that Disney
second issue for companies is that the success of any
institution depends in the long run on its people. That means
hiring good people, retaining good people, training good people,
and treating people right. And in many places, gays and lesbians
aren't treated right. They have to live the dual life with the
resulting effect on productivity. They are not looking for
special rights, but they are looking first for tolerance, and
then for acceptance as good contributors. Companies need to find
all the talent they can and then to treat it right--to make
everybody welcomed and valued.
key--and important--issue right now is domestic-partner
benefits. Many gay and lesbian people take the availability of
these benefits as a signal that an employer values diversity,
that the employer in fact wants all its people treated fairly
and equitably. And the cost of partner benefits is not high.
First of all, a large number of gays and lesbians are not going
to self-identify. In addition, most of those partners are
working and are covered elsewhere. Finally, despite the cost of
AIDS, the costs of other medical events--complicated
pregnancies, for example--are higher in the traditional family.
final issue for corporations is social justice. Some companies
will want to be leaders in eliminating homophobia and in
providing fully equal treatment for gays and lesbians. The last
acceptable prejudice is one too many. Yes, companies are in
business to succeed and prosper, but discrimination and
intolerance are never good business.
is much I want to do. It is easier now to pursue gay issues,
particularly philanthropy. I'll soon be writing letters to
corporations in the Detroit area to ask for money for the HOPE
Fund. Before the publicity, it was unlikely I would have done
that. Gay charitable needs are big; the involvement of
corporations and foundations is very small. Gays need as much
support as straight people. Almost by definition, one's parents
aren't gay. If I'm black, almost by definition my parents are
black. If I am Italian American or German American or Asian
American, clearly by definition that's my family. But each gay
starts anew--alone, uncertain, and probably scared. Quote:
"When people asked me about my marital status, I had begun
using the response, 'I married Ford.' " "What worried
out was that I would be marginalized. I'd be a one-issue