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New Ford CEO to Try to Fulfill the Future

Bill Koenig
By Bill Koenig Senior Editor, SME Media

COMMENTARY

For Ford Motor Co.’s Jim Hackett, the future lasted a little over three years.

Hackett was named CEO in May 2017. His task was to get the Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker ready for a future full of electric and self-driving vehicles.

Ford Jim Farley.jpg
Incoming Ford CEO Jim Farley

At 65, Hackett is yielding the post on Oct. 1 to Jim Farley, 58, currently the chief operating officer. Farley been at Ford since 2007 after serving in a series of executive jobs at Toyota Motor Corp. Farley also had a grandfather who worked at Ford, something he noted in a tweet on Aug. 4, the day Ford announced the news.

The company’s electric and self-driving vehicle future is far from settled. But it now falls to Farley to make it a reality.

The transition will be the third time in six years that Ford has changed CEO. Alan Mulally, who stabilized the automaker during his eight-year tenure, stepped down in 2014.

Mulally had been recruited from Boeing Co., where he oversaw commercial aircraft operations. He performed triage as the money-losing automaker sold off European luxury brands, ended the Mercury brand, and concentrated on building up Ford’s primary namesake brand.

The executive got Ford through a major recession in the late 2000s. Ford then enjoyed years of robust profits when the economy recovered. He also appeared to tame Ford’s corporate culture. If executive intrigue was a line item, Ford’s balance sheet would have been robust.

With Mulally’s retirement, long-time Ford executive Mark Fields took over. His star had risen under Mulally and it seemed a natural move.

However, it didn’t work out that way. Fields was forced out. In came Hackett, a former Steelcase executive. He had headed Ford’s Smart Mobility unit. Prior to that, Hackett had been on Ford’s board of directors.

During his time as CEO, Hackett liked to talk about making Ford fit. The company made splashy moves, including acquiring an old train station in Detroit. The company wants to turn that building into the center of a campus to design vehicles of the future.

The thing is, under Hackett, the present had a way of getting in the way of the future. Ford has had continual problems in Europe. In the U.S., it relies heavily on large pickups for profit. The automaker has mostly gotten out of the car business to concentrate on making trucks and sport-utility vehicles.

What’s more, the entire auto industry is dealing with massive changes. Tesla Inc., the electric-car maker, has emerged as the most valuable automaker (by stock price) despite a spotty record of delivering profits. Tesla is seen by investors as the future.

Hackett wanted to get some of that action. For now, that hasn’t happened.

To be fair, Ford – and other automakers – have also had to deal with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). In North America, automakers and suppliers had to close plants to control the spread of the virus. They have reopened operations with new safety procedures in place. COVID-19 also has dragged the economy down.

There’s one more factor in what makes being the CEO at Ford Motor an especially tough job. Any Ford Motor chief has the Ford family looking over his shoulder.

The family maintains 40 percent voting control through a class of super-voting shares. Bill Ford, 63, who was CEO from 2001 to 2006, holds the post of executive chairman. When Ford purchased the train station, it was depicted as a much of a Bill Ford initiative as a Jim Hackett one.

Jim Farley now takes up a CEO post unlike others. The question is whether he can lead a Ford Motor that can reach that electric and self-driving vehicle future.

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