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 officer in late 2012.
Mulally is retiring, and says that 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 vehicle lines 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 best-selling vehicles in the U.S. for 32 years, and account for about 30 percent 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.
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.