By Megan R. Wilson - 04/01/14 06:00 AM EDT
One of the best boutique lobby firms in Washington is housed within a Fortune 10 company, as Ford’s chief lobbyist likes to say.
Ziad Ojakli has spent the last decade cultivating a team of experts and partnering with outside consultants to make up one of the most aggressive lobbying operations in town.
“Rather than doing things the way [they] had been done [by corporations] around Washington, part of the vision was to make this a boutique — a boutique lobbying firm with one client: Ford,” he said in a recent interview with The Hill. “Everybody here would be, in essence, an expert on the issues and a shoe-leather lobbyist and [active] in the community.”
It hasn’t been an easy tenure. Automakers were hit hard by the recession in 2008, coupled with years of rising energy prices, and many are still recovering. Though Ford didn’t receive the billions in government assistance taken by General Motors and Chrysler, it still had to downsize and make cutbacks across the company.
“For the last 10 years, this team has been tested by fire — getting through the bailout days and staying away from the emergency taxpayer assistance. Everybody feels tested here, and they’ve stayed together,” Ojakli said.
As the global vice president for government and community relations, he manages a team of six in-house lobbyists. Most of his team has been with him and the company throughout the financial crisis. The company also retains six outside lobby firms.
Ford spent $6.12 million on lobbying last year, according to federal records, making it the third largest spender in the auto sector in 2013. Data from the Center for Responsive Politics show it falls behind General Motors and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
“I’ve never met anybody who’s more likable and easy to talk to,” former Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), a member of Ford’s board of directors, said of Ojakli. “He understands politics and understands how policymakers have to think about issues. He’s not just coming at them from the corporate standpoint.”
“He’s known among policymakers as someone who shoots it straight, so they trust him,” Gephardt continued. “They may not agree with him, but they trust him.”
The company lobbies congressional lawmakers and the White House, but also fans out through the federal agencies — including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Reserve and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission — forging a widely influential reach.
Ojakli, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native, originally came to Washington in the 1980s to attend Georgetown University and caught “Potomac Fever” his sophomore year while interning for former Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.). He calls it “the fever that burns but never breaks.”
In 1994, he went back to the halls of Capitol Hill, serving senior roles in the offices of Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), former Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) and the late Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.).
He joined Ford at the start of 2004, after spending three years in the George W. Bush White House as the administration’s liaison to the Senate.
Andy Card, Bush’s former chief of staff from 2001-2006, remembers a call from Ford looking for new advocacy talent. After mentioning Ojakli’s name, the company said others had recommended him as well.
“I had the benefit of working closely with the automotive industry,” Card said in a phone interview, referring to his service as the president of a trade group that represented General Motors, Ford and Chrysler from 1993-1998. “So, I appreciated the burdens that [automakers] carried — and felt he could help carry that burden and mitigate some of the frustrations.”
“I never feel as if I’ve ever had to oversell Z Ojakli — he sells himself,” Card said.
Right now, Ojakli says the biggest issue facing the company is President Obama’s pending trade deals. Ford wants provisions to combat currency manipulation in all future trade deals - starting with the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It has pushed Congress to include them included in a fast-track status for the deal.
While Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) rejected the president’s call for the fast-tracking, which is also known as trade promotion authority, history suggests Ojakli won’t be giving up without a fight.
During a late-night Senate vote on revamped Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards in 2007, when most lobbyists had long gone home, Ojakli and two members of his team refused to give up, according to a former colleague who was there.
“Here he is, a senior executive at a Fortune 500 company, in the Senate reception room, working senators coming in and out trying to get their vote,” a senior Obama administration official, who used to work with Ojakli, told The Hill. “He’s a guy that’s trying to get it done, working it hard until the very end.”
As passionate as he is about the issues, Ojakli takes the company’s philanthropic mission even more seriously. In addition to sitting on several boards, he is active in the company’s hefty portfolio of charitable projects.
“This is part of Henry Ford’s vision — being a good neighbor in the communities we serve, all around the United States and even around the world,” he said.
Featured prominently on Ford’s website is a message from its founder: “A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business.”
Ford takes part in safe-driving initiatives for young people in the U.S., Brazil, Europe, China and Russia, and mobilizes its employees in a charitable army known as the Ford Volunteer Corps.
According to a Ford report, 25,000 employees, retirees and dealers participated in 1,350 volunteer projects in 29 countries in 2012. The company’s charity, the Ford Fund, made $21.6 million in grants to U.S.-based nonprofits that same year. The company directly donated another $8.5 million. It helps students, veterans, victims of natural disasters and vulnerable populations.
Ojakli serves on the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoological Park Advisory Board, while Ford sponsors the wildly popular panda cam at the National Zoo, which allows Internet audiences to watch Bao Bao, the D.C. zoo’s newest panda cub.
“It was not only the panda cam ... but there’s also a research element connected to China. It’s really important to figuring out how you can release pandas back into the wild from captivity,” he said. “We liked the dual aspect of it.”
Whether talking about trade policy or charitable projects, Ojakli’s eyes light up with excitement, but he — and those around him — says he places more emphasis on staying ahead of the curve.
“Listening is the most important lobbying skill,” Ojakli said. “It’s seeking to understand before seeking to be understood.”
This post was updated at 3:00 p.m.