Corporate intrigue has been part of the DNA of Ford Motor Co. since the original Henry Ford figuratively beat down his son Edsel, who had wanted to modernize the automaker.
So, from a historical perspective, nobody should have been surprised when Chief Executive Officer Mark Field’s abrupt departure was announced on May 22. This just happens every so often at the company.
Ford executives from the famous (Lee Iacocca) to those less well known (one-time Chief Financial Officer Don Leclair) have left the company’s Glass House headquarters in Dearborn, MI, in a hurry.
Fields’ tenure was supposed to be different. He succeeded Alan Mulally, the CEO from Sept. 1, 2006, to mid-2014, who supposedly tamed the Ford culture. From now on, the story line went, Ford would pull in one direction.
If Ford is going in one direction, it’s one that Fields, 56, wasn’t headed toward.
The automaker said that Jim Hackett, 62, who had headed Ford’s Smart Mobility unit, was the new president and CEO. Ford’s statement said Fields had “elected to retire.” It’s unlikely Fields was thinking about retirement a week ago. Other deposed Ford CEOs such as Donald Petersen and Jacques Nasser discovered a sudden hankering to retire in previous decades.
Mulally, now 71, became CEO as Ford faced a threat to its very survival. Bill Ford, the great-grandson of Henry Ford and now 60, had tried his hand at being CEO from 2001 until 2006. The company reached out to Mulally, a former Boeing Co. executive, to turn around the automaker.
Mulally devised a plan that he called “One Ford.” The company sold off luxury brands such as Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo to concentrate on its main Ford brand.
The former Boeing executive had time to get his plans in order. Former CFO Leclair devised a financing plan where Ford put up its assets, even its Ford blue oval logo, as collateral for loans. But Mulally would be the salesman for the financing plan and got the credit when it worked.
Eventually, Mulally departed. Fields, who had headed Ford’s operations in North and South America, got the top job.
However, Ford found things changing again, with self-driving cars looming as a game changer for the auto industry and electric-car maker Tesla Inc. exceeding Ford’s market cap.
In the end, Fields couldn’t escape Ford’s history. He was deposed like others before him. (Bill Ford stepped down as CEO but remains as chairman of the board.) The Mulally tenure may be the exception that proves the rule. Now, it remains to be seen whether Jim Hackett, who spent most of his career outside Ford at Steelcase, can pull off another Mulally-style comeback.
Bill Koenig, a senior editor of Manufacturing Engineering, covered Ford from 2001 through 2008, for Bloomberg News.