Final Inspection

Ford’s Fields the Right Man for Top Job

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Chief Operating Officer Mark Fields has been groomed his entire professional life to take the helm at Ford and has proved he is ready for the job.

Industry analysts have crawled out of the woodwork in response to a recent Bloomberg report Ford CEO Alan Mulally soon would hand over the reins of the automaker to his second-in-command, Chief Operating Officer Mark Fields.

The big question on everybody’s mind is whether Fields is up to the task. The answer is yes, he is more than ready.

There’s no detracting from what Mulally has accomplished in his nearly eight years atop the automaker. His famous “One Ford” strategy is credited with implementing a laser-like focus on product, matching capacity with actual vehicle demand and having Ford’s 181,000 employees work together as one global team, putting an end to the infighting that plagued the automaker for decades.

In reality, many of the key aspects of Mulally’s One Ford strategy were outlined in an earlier plan dubbed “Way Forward,” which largely was the work of Fields. Although Way Forward was panned by some for not going far enough when it was rolled out in 2006, it set the course the automaker would take under the guidance of Mulally.

Key components of the plan included plant closings, the shuttering or selling off of former Visteon plants, a 30% reduction in Ford’s salaried workforce and buyout offers to all of its UAW employees. The actions reduced the auto maker's North American production capacity to 3.6 million units by the end of 2008, down 26% vs. like-2005.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t hear any more than I thought I would hear from Ford today,” Brett Hoselton, an automotive analyst with KeyBanc Capital Markets, said at the time. “Plant closures, job layoffs … that’s just more of the same from Ford.”

Without Way Forward, Mulally’s One Ford strategy likely would have taken a lot longer to implement and might have held the automaker back from the profits it posted over the past 19 consecutive quarters.

Fields’ detractors also cite character flaws in arguing he isn’t ready for the top job. A popular story recalled by critics is detailed in Bryce Hoffman’s book “American Icon,” which describes a near-physical confrontation with former Chief Financial Officer Don Leclair over the “Bold Moves” ad campaign that forced Chairman Bill Ford to restrain Fields.

The outburst may not be proper boardroom behavior, but the list of automotive executives with quick tempers is not a short one. Since then, Fields has kept his cool, at least in public.

Another knock is that Fields lacks the strong personality required to keep Ford employees from returning to their old ways once Mulally departs.

Having interviewed Fields on multiple occasions and spoken to people who work directly under him, this simply doesn’t track. He is, in fact, very personable and when out of the spotlight amazingly down to earth. It’s these qualities, in addition to his decades of automotive experience, including heading Mazda and Ford’s former Premier Automotive Group stable of luxury brands, that make him the right fit for the job.

Following in Mulally’s footsteps is no easy task, and Fields certainly will encounter rough spots along the way. But if not Fields, then who?

The answer is there is no better candidate. Fields has been groomed his entire professional life to lead Ford and has waited patiently for his turn. Now it’s the time to give the man some space  –  and the benefit of the doubt.

bpope@wardsauto.com

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