With the ouster of Mark Fields as CEO of Ford Motor Co., there will be the likely howls from the enthusiast peanut gallery regarding his replacement: former Steelcase chief Jim Hackett.
Aside from a few years on Ford’s board and a short stint parked at Ford’s mobility services subsidiary, Hackett has no car industry experience. Purists will herald that this is the beginning of the end of Ford. What’s next? Bringing in brand managers to oversee product decisions? Surely, Ford’s cars and trucks will become anonymous clones. We might as well put a stake through the heart of the GT and GT350R, right? Not so fast.
At this point in time, bringing in Hackett might be Bill Ford’s savviest move to run his family’s dynasty.
Fields might have been a Ford lifer, but he was no car guy. He was a marketing and turnaround type who escalated up the food chain because he knew how to work a boardroom and create compelling narratives backed with reams of spreadsheets.
A telling anecdote: At the 2002 Geneva International Motor Show—a coming-out party for Fields to run Ford’s luxury brands—Ford hosted a gala event that hundreds of journalists and industry peers attended. As Fields gave his opening remarks to the hushed masses, he strolled the perimeter of the cavernous ballroom and made comments regarding the dozen iconic vehicles that were parked there. As he reached an Aston Martin DB6, Fields went off script and looked away from his note cards to express his desire and love for the James Bond “Goldfinger” car. The eye rolls and head shakes were audible.
But Fields was a visionary with some fortunate timing. When Fields was overseeing Mazda’s turnaround, he had product geniuses Phil Martens and Martin Leach creating great vehicles such as the original Mazda3. At Ford of Europe, Fields arrived just as previous CEO Nick Scheele and manufacturing hard man David Thursfield had made dramatic changes to the company’s structure. And finally in running the global Ford Motor Co., Fields took the job just as Ford righted itself from its recessionary crisis under the steady hand of former Boeing CEO Alan Mulally.
But Fields was no Chauncey Gardiner; he signed off on the “zoom zoom” marketing campaign that put Mazda in the heads of many car shoppers. He shepherded Ford’s big-bucks product spend on the F-Series pickups (the Super Duty versions are the Motor Trend 2017 Truck of the Year). He quieted substantial rancor among the dealers. And he has positioned Ford as a leader in the future mobility-services space.
It’s an odd transition for Ford. How many CEOs have been shown the door as their company posted a $9 billion pretax profit? In this case, Fields’ weakness was his inability to charm Wall Street. With Ford stock languishing—perhaps the most important performance index for the Ford family—the automaker decided it needed an executive who could put a spring in the stock price.
But back to Hackett. Does a guy with short experience in the car biz hurt Ford? Not hardly. Sure, recent experience of Home Despot Bob Nardelli at Chrysler and sunglasses shiller Ron Zarrella at GM show the damage that can be done when newbies get in over their head in the endlessly complicated automotive field.
But Mulally’s tenure at Ford was a winning one, and he knew little about cars upon his arrival. Ford was in shambles coming out of the recession—it was spared bankruptcy’s scythe only by having mortgaged the family jewels a couple years before the market crashed. Mulally knew about the complexity of building jetliners and quickly discovered that building cars was even harder.
And that was the most important thing: Mulally knew what he didn’t know and surrounded himself with the right folks who knew the right stuff. Mulally wasn’t threatened by car guys—he embraced them. Ford surged.
There also is the example of Nissan savior Carlos Ghosn, whose prior career was largely spent at Michelin, not a car company. Even though the popular narrative of him is as le cost killer, Ghosn’s first big decision was to resurrect the Z.
Let us not forget that car guy credentials aren’t necessarily a recipe for success. Numerous automakers have suffered from bad bets based on wishful thinking and overzealous spending on vehicles that had no business being built.
Hackett would do well to follow Mulally’s example and surround himself with a new generation of whiz kids. He has plenty of top-flight car guys surrounding him—such as Jim Farley, who was recently promoted from surging Ford of Europe to be global executive vice president. Then there are proper gearheads such as technology boss Raj Nair and Ford Performance boss Dave Pericak. The list goes on.
Don’t be too quick to trumpet the death of Ford as a builder of compelling products just because the new guy came from making office furniture. If Hackett’s assistant says there’s a call from Alan Mulally, Hackett would be wise to take it. He could learn more about running a car business in a few minutes than in months of briefings with his team.