Ford’s talismanic Mulally names departure date and successor

Mark Fields to take over after years working in the wings

Alan Mulally, Ford’s outgoing chief executive officer (right) greets Mark Fields, chief operating officer and his upcoming successor.

Alan Mulally, Ford’s outgoing chief executive officer (right) greets Mark Fields, chief operating officer and his upcoming successor.

Thu, May 1, 2014, 14:55

In spite of the seriousness of the announcement, there was levity as Ford’s Big Three - CEO Alan Mulally, Chairman Bill Ford Jnr and Head of North & South America Mark Fields - gathered to officially declare an end to Mr Mulally’s tenure as Ford’s boss.

He will officially step down on July 1st and Fields, who is also Ford’s Chief Operating Officer, will replace him. Mulally, who joined the Ford Motor Company from Boeing eight years ago, has been seen as the kingpin of the Blue Oval’s recent successes.

He has made difficult decisions, including the selling off of Ford-owned brands such as Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo and the shuttering of major factories, most notably the vast production facility in Ghenk, Belgium which has led to thousands of job losses. Mulally will be best remembered though as the man who safely led Ford through the darkest days of the global recession. As Detroit rivals General Motors and Chrysler staggered and fell into bankruptcy and government bailout, Ford managed to hold on and turn itself around.

The levity came as Bill Ford described Mr Mulally’s character as CEO. Mr Ford spoke of many CEOs being “unable to let go, they just can’t. You have to drag them out kicking and screaming.” A ripple of laughter ran through the assembled audience as Mr Mulally then mimed being dragged away by unseen hands. Clearly, although he feels the time is right to go, he will miss his time at the tiller of Ford.

It was Mulally who creates the ‘One Ford’ strategy, part of which was the hiving off of premium-badged brands such as Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston Martin, but an equally important part of which was the meshing of Ford’s myriad global model ranges. It has seen the European Fiesta and Focus on sale in North America and will later this year see the US-market Fusion on sale here as the new Mondeo, as well as the iconic Mustang sports car in right-hand-drive.

Mulally’s successor, Mark Fields, has been an integral part of those plans, something that Ford hopes will calm and investor nervousness. Fields, 53, has an interesting track record.

Unlike Mulally, who came to Ford from the world of aviation, he’s a lifetime motor industry man, having been the youngest person ever to head up a major Japanese car maker when he became boss of Mazda at the age of just 38. On returning to Ford HQ, he was made head of the Ford Premier Automotive Group (which consisted of Jaguar, Land Rover, Lincoln and Aston Martin) in 2002 before more recently becoming Head of North & South America and Chief Operating Officer. Under Field’s watch, Ford’s North American operations have moved from record losses in 2006 to record profits in the past year. He will be seen as a safe pair of hands, but many may feel that he may not display the simple, laser-focused vision of Mulally.

Profits notwithstanding, vision is certainly something Ford needs right now. While overall profits are buoyant Europe is still a loss-making area for the brand and that needs to be turned around, fast. On top of which, Lincoln, once a byword for style and the choice of presidents, is languishing at the bottom of sales charts and critics’ lists - Ford must soon make a decision whether or not to continue investing in a brand many consider moribund. And One Ford is not yet a done deal - it remains to be seen how Europe will take to the coming invasion of US-designed models (Fusion, Mustang, Edge SUV and more are coming) and there are major challenges to be met if Ford is to square up to the likes of Volkswagen and Toyota in global sales terms.

Still, this is the smoothest and easiest CEO transition Ford will ever have. Late nineties CEO Jac Nasser left under a cloud, while handovers back in the sixties and seventies were mired in Ford family politics. Fields at least will have the benefit of picking up where a popular and successful predecessor left off.