Commentary

Good Thing Mark Fields Doesn't Have A Tim Cook Situation

Mark Fields today gets what he's been preparing for for years: the top job at Ford, the keys to the car. Who wouldn't want that? It's been completely overhauled, race-tuned, hopped up, slimmed down, repainted, and restored. "Take it away, Mark, but oh, by the way, it's worth $47.5 billion, and the value drops by half if you scratch it, ding it, get it dirty, lose parts, and wear out the clutch." Also, everyone's watching, too. Especially during the first five minutes. 

With Alan Mulally, now officially an industry legend, leaving the company he rebuilt over an eight-year run, it is the automaker’s Apple moment. Meaning it’s also Mark Field's Tim Cook moment. The easy part is that Mulally isn’t Jobs. The latter was himself the key component of Apple’s product innovation process. Mulally's biggest contribution, though, was foundational. It was in creating a structure that doesn’t require his presence if it’s working right: he changed corporate culture, and established a global organization that saved money by creating a global vehicle platform and global product strategy. 

He reoriented the Ford vision toward the idea of "mobility," because, as in the Apple world of connected devices, where the old categories have dissolved, the auto business is moving toward an urban-centric, amorphous world of machines that move people around using all kinds of different propulsion technologies. Some will be cars, some not.

And he created a culture of accountability without driving it with a corporate Norfolk Island-style system of reward and punishment. In other words, he helped make it safe to admit problems. From the get-go, he made it clear that management should find those problems and present them (without waiting for the axe to fall), and be honest about how to fix them. 

He made it a lot easier for the company to concentrate on staying ahead of the product cycle by slimming down to a couple dozen vehicles, many of them global. That was accomplished partly by selling off all of the outlier brands former CEO Jacques Nasser had put under the "Premier Auto Group" umbrella. Mulally realized the value of the Blue Oval and the legacy nameplates like Taurus. He also took big risks to establish Ford's first-mover status in areas like telematics via Ford's partnership with Microsoft toward development of the telematics platform Sync.

Well, Mulally is proof that an outsider perspective can pay dividends. But Fields, a Ford veteran, is the replacement that makes the most sense and not just because he’s the direct report. Like Cook at Apple, he knows the company as well as anyone, having been with Ford for a quarter century, and serving as COO since late 2012. Ironically, he was also in charge of the Premier Auto Group (Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover) before it was cut loose, so he also gets the luxury side of the business, which the company is trying to boost as it focuses on Lincoln. 

The suddenness of the announcement of Mulally's departure notwithstanding, Fields has been preparing for this for a long time. We all knew he was going to be next in line, and that his appointment to CEO would happen this year. Mulally, it's also pretty obvious, is accepting a big offer, otherwise the transition would have probably been slower, and Mulally would have shifted over to the board. There was the offer from Microsoft, but word is this not where he's going. We'll see. 

The other thing we'll see is how fast Fields moves. As I mentioned, he's known about this for some time, so he will certainly have his ducks in a row. That could mean C-suite changes. Should CMO Jim Farley be worried? Should Ray Day, head of communications, be worried? How about CFO Bob Shanks, even? Should all the divisional chiefs be hitting the "just lookin'" button on LinkedIn? One thing Field will do right away is make sure investors don't get nervous. So, it's guaranteed he'll be as public a CEO as Mulally has been. Minus the red sweater, one assumes.

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