The Early Years
Jim Vella got his first taste of how business works at age five. His father owned a small grocery store in southwest Detroit at the corner of Fort Street and Morrell Street. On trips to Eastern Market to buy produce and other goods wholesale, Jim’s father taught him how to multiply the per-piece cost and profit markup in his head so they could determine what to charge customers.
Back at the store, Jim was put to work making deliveries to neighborhood families. Many of them were like his own family — first-generation immigrants from Malta and elsewhere who came to Detroit in the 1950s looking for auto factory jobs. Sometimes the deliveries were only a few eggs at a time, because not everyone had a refrigerator to preserve food. When people needed groceries to eat but couldn’t pay, Jim’s father would extend credit the old-fashioned way, relying on the honor system that customers would make good when they could.
The Catholic church loomed large in the Vella household. One of nine kids, Jim and his brothers and sisters attended Most Holy Redeemer church and school on Junction Street. The nuns made an impression on him — and he on them. And when he goes back to buy lunch for the Holy Redeemer Grade School kids, as he does from time to time, he’ll smile and tell you a few stories and the life lessons he learned.
After high school, Jim attended University of Detroit-Mercy. On his way to earning a bachelor’s degree in Communications, he began working part-time at WJBK-TV, at that time the CBS affiliate in Detroit. A natural listener and leader, he gravitated to the assignment desk. It fit with his instincts for recognizing the emotions behind a story and the simplest way to convey them.
Following college, Jim spent the next 14 years in television news. He worked at stations in San Diego and Columbus, Ohio, before returning to WJBK, which later became FOX2 Detroit. It wasn’t long before a former colleague raised the idea of working for Ford Motor Company. It was 1988 and the automaker was launching an in-house television news department. Jim’s experience in assembling and producing daily TV stories made him a perfect fit for the job. He took it.
Working at Ford
Jim’s knack for seeing the big picture and an ability to translate how reporters think earned him the trust of corporate executives. He moved up through more senior jobs in Ford’s Public Affairs department. Then came Feb. 1, 1999, the day the Rouge manufacturing complex power plant exploded. Six workers died and dozens were injured. Company Chairman Bill Ford left his nearby office and rushed to the scene. As manager of Ford’s manufacturing communications, Jim found himself at the center of one of the worst disasters in Ford’s history — and suddenly the PR point person for Bill Ford, the great grandson of Henry Ford. It started a close working relationship and friendship that would take the two men through 20 years of success, upheaval and change at one of the world’s largest auto companies.
Jim rose further through Ford’s executive ranks. He was elected a company vice president in charge of Corporate Public Affairs and later became Bill Ford’s chief of staff. After spending a year as a visiting professor at University of Michigan-Dearborn teaching management communications and guest lecturing, Jim returned to Ford as president of the Ford Motor Company Fund in December 2006.
Running the Ford Fund
At Ford Fund, the company’s charitable organization, Jim found an outlet for all he had been absorbing and observing his whole life. What do communities need to thrive? How can those with wealth and influence play a role in making the world a better place? And what are the stories that move people to help?
During the next 13 years, Jim shaped the Ford Fund from an outlet for corporate gifts into a strategic component of the company’s global mission to make lives better. The Ford Fund expanded Driving Skills for Life, a free safe driving program for teens, to new drivers around the world – including women in Saudi Arabia. It created a strategy that for the first time coordinated local dealer philanthropy with Ford’s nonprofit contributions. And it launched the global Ford Resource and Engagement Centers, a first-of-its-kind network of company-sponsored community facilities that bring nonprofits together to meet local needs.
It’s fitting that the first Ford Resource and Engagement Center opened in southwest Detroit, not far from the neighborhood where Jim delivered groceries to families as a boy. Services at the center include free tax, legal, arts and continuing education classes for residents, as well as a client choice food pantry.
While at Ford Fund, Jim became a source of guidance and support for nonprofit organizations around the world. He served on national boards including the Smithsonian Institution and Salvation Army National Advisory Board. He was appointed by Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm to chair the Michigan Community Service Commission. And in Detroit he participated in various board capacities with more than 20 organizations including the United Way of Southeast Michigan, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Motown Museum, Detroit Institute of the Arts, Gleaners Community Food Bank and Cass Community Social Services.
In December 2019 Jim retired from Ford after 31 years. But he wasn’t done wanting to make a difference. He created the Vella Strategic Philanthropy Group. The mission is simple: To make the world a better place through strategic partnerships with those who serve others.