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Ryan E. Day

Customer Care

Tides of Change at Ford Motor Co.

Digging into the unseen forces behind the replacement of CEO Mark Fields

Published: Thursday, June 1, 2017 - 12:03

I remember my first trip to Michigan in 2012. I was covering the Ford Motor Co.’s annual Trend Conference and had the opportunity to meet Alan Mulally, who gave a compelling presentation explaining the vision, strategy, and implementation of the One Ford plan. I was impressed more with the man than the plan. At the time, I knew nothing about Mark Fields.

I did not know, for instance, that the One Ford plan was initially developed by Fields. I did not know that Fields was president of the Ford Americas Division and that he would be tapped as Ford’s Chief Operations Officer in a matter of months. And I certainly did not know that Ford considered Mark Fields and Alan Mulally largely responsible for resurrecting the company from, as a Ford blog post from around that time says, “Decades of poor performance and lackluster design that had plagued Ford since the late ‘80s.”

In Mulally’s presentation, he told the story of how, in 2006, Bill Ford, then CEO of Ford Motor Co., invited him to spend a weekend together. At that time Mulally was CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes. Apparently, Mulally was wooed by Bill Ford’s commitment to, and enthusiasm for, a systemic restructuring of the entire organization. Ford needed Mulally to do for them what he had done for Boeing, and Mulally bit. And restructure the company Mulally did; the interesting thing is that it was Fields who actually developed the One Ford plan (known originally as “The Way Forward”), that Mulally championed to turn the company around.

In mulling over the seemingly abrupt departure of Mark Fields, I can’t help but consider a timeline of developments at Ford:
• From 1990–2006, Ford loses 25 percent of market share
• In 2006, Ford brings in Alan Mulally
• In 2007, Ford suffers a $12.6 billion loss
• In 2007, Bill Ford and the Ford executive team taps Fields to develop a plan that would return the company back to profitability
• In 2010, Ford posts a $6.6 billion profit
• In 2012, addressing Mobile World Congress delegates, Bill Ford outlines his future-state vision as a “Blueprint for Mobility”—the plan is included in Ford’s 2011–12 Sustainability Report
• In 2013, Ford posts $8.6 billion in pre-tax profits
• In 2014, Alan Mulally retires and Mark Fields is named as CEO of Ford Motor Co.
• In 2015, Ford posts $10.8 billion in pre-tax profits
• In 2016, Ford Smart Mobility LLC is established to develop and invest in mobility services; Jim Hackett is named subsidiary chairman
• In 2016, Ford posts $10.4 billion in pre-tax profits
• In 2017, Ford posts $2.2 billion in pre-tax profits for Q1, which is comparable to previous years; outsider speculation on Ford’s financial condition, however, fluctuate wildly
• In 2017, without preamble or warning, Mark Fields retires from Ford, and Jim Hackett named as CEO

A few things strike me as I’ve followed Ford’s story over the last five years. First, Mark Fields was an avid proponent of Ford as a mobility company. Second, it’s obvious that the auto company is still as committed as ever to the technologies of connectivity and autonomous vehicles. Third, although Ford’s profits have steadily climbed under both Mulally and Fields, the company’s stock prices, which gained during the Mulally era, plummeted on Fields’ watch.

It may not be the direction Fields was leading that is the issue. Ultimately, it may have to do with the fact that Fields just wasn’t able to sell the vision to stock investors. Although Ford PR says that Mark Fields “announced his retirement,” many pundits in the business world believe he was given the golden boot.

“Our world has changed dramatically,” says William C. Ford Jr., Ford’s chairman and great-grandson of its founder, in a New York Times article. “Look at the pace of change and the competitors coming into our space, and we need to match or beat that.” When he was introduced as chief executive, Hackett defended the company’s commitment to self-driving technology. “I would challenge that idea that we are not moving fast on mobility,” he said. “We’ve mapped out a path that gives us a lot of opportunity.”

If anything, Ford is doubling-down on all the points of direction and growth that defined Fields’ tenure as CEO. The company seems to be financially sound and on course according to their own vision. The caveat is lack of buy-in by investors; i.e. stock prices are in the toilet even though profits are high. In other words, Fields has failed to convince investors that, with him at the helm, Ford will continue to be profitable as the “Blueprint for Mobility” unfolds.

In an odd way, it seems that Ford didn’t oust their CEO as much as they fired their head of sales.


About The Author

Ryan E. Day’s picture

Ryan E. Day

Ryan E. Day is Quality Digest’s project manager and senior editor for solution-based reporting, which brings together those seeking business improvement solutions and solution providers. Day has spent the last decade researching and interviewing top business leaders and continuous improvement experts at companies like Sakor, Ford, Merchandize Liquidators, Olympus, 3D Systems, Hexagon, Intertek, InfinityQS, Johnson Controls, FARO, and Eckel Industries. Most of his reporting is done with the help of his 20 lb tabby cat at his side.