DEARBORN, Mich. – For Mark Fields, Ford’s newly appointed CEO, the biggest challenge is to stay the course and not let the company drift back into the bad habits that almost sunk it a decade ago.
Taking over for Alan Mulally on July 1, Fields will inherit a healthy company that most analysts agree is poised for big growth next year and beyond.
That wasn’t the case in 2006, when then-CEO Bill Ford hired Mulally away from Boeing, bypassing Fields and other internal candidates. Ford was on its way to a $12.6 billion annual loss and the management was widely seen as dysfunctional. Mulally, 68, achieved superstar status by putting an end to the infighting, keeping the company out of bankruptcy and getting Ford to build cars that people like to drive.
Fields was instrumental in that turnaround. As the head of Ford’s North American operations, he drew up the “Way Forward” program that Mulally implemented so successfully. The 53-year-old Fields has been seen as Mulally’s heir apparent since being named chief operating office in late 2012.
Mulally is retiring, and says while he has gotten several book offers, he hasn’t yet planned his next steps.
Fields takes the CEO job during a transition year at Ford. The company expects pretax profit to fall to between $7 billion and $8 billion from $8.5 billion in 2013, as it launches a record 23 vehicles worldwide and builds seven plants, including four in China. It’s also preparing to launch a new aluminum-clad F-150 pickup truck later this year, which could reap profits down the road but will be expensive to prepare for.
Analysts agree that the revolutionary new truck — which will be 700 pounds lighter than the outgoing truck and far more fuel efficient — will be Fields’ first big test. F-Series pickups have been the bestselling vehicles in the U.S. for 32 years, and account for about 30 per cent of Ford’s North American revenue. The company can’t risk any big mistakes.
Another major challenge is the revival of Ford’s luxury Lincoln brand. The company introduced the new MKZ sedan last year, and plans a new small crossover, the MKC, in the coming months. But after years of decline, Lincoln isn’t prominent on luxury buyers’ shopping lists. Ford hopes for better luck in China, where it’s introducing the brand this year.
More broadly, Fields needs to make sure the company doesn’t fall back into the divisive infighting that paralyzed it in the past. On Thursday, Fields recalled one early meeting under Mulally, where executives spent 45 minutes arguing about an organizational chart. Mulally finally stepped to the white board and wrote, over their scribbles, “Working Together.”
“It was one of those light bulb moments,” Fields said.
David Whiston, an analyst with Morningstar, said he’s sorry to see Mulally go, but thinks Fields is ready to take over and, as a 25-year veteran of the company, knows it even better than Mulally in some ways.
“In some cases the CEO’s shoes are impossible shoes to fill, but Mark can just come in and keep doing what he has been doing,” Whiston said. “Some will be concerned, but there were a lot of people underneath Alan making the results happen. Alan was just the visionary and the catalyst to make that change.”
Bill Ford told The Associated Press that Fields is humble about his achievements. But he has been an advocate within the company for advanced technology and better products.
“Every job the company’s ever asked him to do, he’s done a really good job of it,” Bill Ford said.
Mulally relied heavily on the “Way Forward” strategy that Fields initiated in 2005, when Ford’s big North American division was a money pit. Fields’s plan called for closing factories, laying off thousands of workers and using Ford’s design expertise in Europe to build better cars that could be sold globally.
Fields embraced Mulally’s call for a cultural change early on, Bill Ford said, adding that Fields’ decision to stay with the company and learn from Mulally showed a lot of fortitude. In turn, Mulally helped smooth some of the rough edges that had sometimes made the Brooklyn, N.Y.-born Fields hard to work with.
“I have nothing left to teach or tell Mark about. He knows everything,” Mulally said.
Bill Ford said Fields will be a collaborative leader, like Mulally, but “with not as much hugging.” Mulally, a father of five, is famous for his wide grin and bear hugs.
This marks the second change in leadership at the top of a Detroit automaker this year. Mary Barra took over as CEO for Dan Akerson at General Motors in January.
Supporters say Fields is an excellent strategist with a deep knowledge of the business. His international experience, with stints in Japan, Europe and Argentina, is invaluable as Ford restructures its European operations and focuses on growth in volatile young markets like Asia and South America.
Fields, a married father of two college-age sons, wears sharp suits and has a bit of a swagger. He was raised in Paramus, New Jersey, the youngest of three sons; his father, Gerald Fields, was the purchasing manager at a sprinkler company and often talked business at the kitchen table. His mother is a homemaker.
At the New York auto show in April, Fields showed a home movie of his family at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. He remembered the excitement of the crowd when he was lifted on his father’s shoulders to see the new Ford Mustang.
He’s been a car guy since he was eight, when his father bought him his first two Matchbox cars, which he still has. He also still owns his first car, a Datsun 280Z, which he bought in 1983.
Fields earned a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University in 1983. He sold computers for IBM before earning an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1989.
Like Barra, who became the first female CEO of a big automaker at GM, Fields will be breaking a mould at Ford. He is the company’s first Jewish chief executive.
Ford shares fell 24 cents to close at $15.91.