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Ford, Declaring Itself a Mobility Company, Revisits an Old Strategy

Bill Koenig
By Bill Koenig Senior Editor, SME Media

COMMENTARY

Ford Motor Co., if you haven’t heard, is a mobility company rather than just an automaker. The company’s latest mobility move is similar to one it tried two decades ago.

Dearborn, MI-based Ford said Nov. 8 it acquired Spin (San Francisco) a “scooter-sharing company that provides customers an alternative for first- and last-mile transportation.” Spin currently operates in  13 U.S. cities. A Spin scooter costs $1 to rent and 15 cents a minute, according to Ford.

In the late 1990s, Ford also tried to be more than an automaker under then-CEO Jacques Nasser. One of the initiatives was known as Think, officially spelled Th!nk.

Think included electric bicycles, a neighborhood electric vehicle (roughly the size of an electric cart) and small electric cars. The Think lineup was intended for short trips.

In 2001, Ford had a media event in northern Michigan in 2001 where reporters did test drives of the neighborhood electric vehicle in an upscale residential community. The electric bikes and small EVs were also available to try out.

Nasser’s support of Think ended on an ironic note.

In the fall of 2001, Nasser made a public appearance at a Detroit plant that made Think vehicles. It would turn out to be his final public outing as Ford’s boss. After departing the plant, he returned to Ford headquarters and was deposed as CEO. Chairman Bill Ford took the CEO title.

By that time, Ford’s finances had deteriorated. As part of a restructuring, that included factory closings, Think was jettisoned. It would be one of a series of Ford restructurings that decade.

Times Change

A lot has changed. Urban congestion is more of an issue than in Think’s time. What’s more,  Ford’s current CEO, Jim Hackett, is broadening what the company does. He’s being watched by Bill Ford, whose title executive chairman.

“We’re excited about this investment in Spin,” Marcy Klevorn, a Ford executive vice president and president of Ford Mobility, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. “We believe the customer has spoken…The first and last mile problem is real in urban settings.” Klevorn said Ford plants to get Spin into about 100 cities.

For now, Ford generates most of its profit from large pickups and SUVs sold in North America. Like other automakers, Ford is trying to transition into a new era. It is developing self-driving and “electrified” vehicles (electric vehicles and hybrids).

Ford needs to finance the new investments from the truck and SUV profits. The company also is looking to cut salaried jobs, part of efforts by Hackett to make Ford (as he calls it) more fit.

Think became the victim of a “back to basics” drive in the 2000s. Other acquisitions made by Nasser also were sold off.

Now, the definition of basics appears to be changing in the auto industry. The question is whether Spin turns out better than Think.

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