It's early March and meeting time at Ford Motor Co.'s Enfield Plant in London. The plant supplies instrument clusters and fuel-delivery modules to European and North American vehicle assembly plants.

The meetings, held in several sessions two to three times a year, bring all employees of the 3-shift plant together with the Plant manager to discuss the state of the plant, view upbeat videotapes and outline objectives -- such as greater teamwork and meeting the shorter design and production timelines called for under Ford 2000.

One session has just ended, and judging from the plant manager's exhilarated tone, all went well.

Anne Stevens is proud to be a Ford plant manager. It means she meets Chairman Alex Trotman's leadership criteria: drive and a passion for product and quality -- "for being the best."

Ms. Stevens, who took the helm at Enfield last September, doesn't feel that she's faced career obstacles or had to work harder to prove herself because she is a woman.

"I don't go into a position looking for obstacles, and I don't find any. If you are competent, fair and respectful of others, people will respect you. "

Still, a female automotive plant manager is a rarity. Deborah Kent, who heads Ford's Ohio Assembly Plant, in Avon Lake, OH, is the only other Ford woman currently in that position. Ms. Stevens is Ford's first in Europe and first in its Automotive Components Div.

Though rare in the U.S., women plant managers were all but unheard of in Europe before this American woman arrived at Enfield.

If the staff had any reservations about a woman heading the plant, her American heritage may have worked in her favor. It's as though "being an American gives women a license to be more assertive," she says, noting that there are few professional women in Britain.

Indeed, only one of 12 managers who report directly to Ms. Stevens is a woman, and even though 39% of the plant's 820 hourly workers are women, they hold only 15% of the 140 salaried positions.

Ms. Stevens admits that always being in the minority among your peers can be a little lonely at times. That's why she so appreciates the British men who went out of their way to introduce her to the few womeh there who hold key business positions. "That they even thought to do it shows a sensitivity that men sometimes aren't given credit for having," she says.

Ms. Stevens packs some impressive credentials: degrees in mechanical and materials engineering from Philadelphia's Drexel University, where she received the President's Most Likely to Succeed Award at her 1980 graduation; graduate course work in business; 10 years with the Exxon Chemical Co., where she earned the company's President's Award in 1990 five years with Ford, where she began as a marketing manager in 1990 and worked her way up to manufacturing manager at Ford's Automotive Components Div. plant in Saline, MI, in October 1994.

These accomplishments are all the more impressive when two children are mixed into the equation.

Not satisfied with the nursing program she'd enrolled in after high school, Ms. Stevens left for a job with Reading, PA, Bell Telephone Co. High scores on employment tests ushered her into the engineering department where she met and married William Stevens. Two babies later, the couple enrolled in engineering school.

Mr. Stevens is a research manager for a Michigan-based Ford supplier. This isn't the first time the couple's careers have separated ; Ms. Stevens says they've probably lived apart for a total of six of the 28 years they've been married. They are in frequent phone contact and visit back and forth every month or two. Daughter, Jennifer, is a Ford engineer and son, Jon, whom his mother dubs "the philosopher," is on his way to a job in the Virgin Islands.

Perhaps the ease with which Ms. Stevens, 48, was accepted at the Enfield Plant is attributable to the reputation that preceded her.

"When you move from one job to another, what you've accomplished goes with you," she says. "I had a strong reputation at the Saline plant for really understanding manufacturing and for being open and fair. People here contacted people in the States to get 'the headlines' on me."

If they contacted Saline Plant Manager Don W. Theisen, they got a glowing report.

"She combines that rare blend of being able to be tough and hold people accountable while at the same time have fun. As a result, people love to work for her; it's just an outstanding trait that you see in exceptional leaders. Working with Anne was one of the highlights of my career," Mr. Theisen tells WAW.

She also gets rave reviews from Ford manufacturing and development engineer Jennifer Zechman -- Ms. Stevens' "extremely proud" daughter.

"My mom is a great, great person," says Ms. Zechman, a chemical engineering grad from Rutgers University. "Anyone I've met who has worked for her says she's the best boss they ever had. She really cares about people and sincerely wants to make wherever she works a better place.

"She's a tough act to follow," says Ms, Zechman, who, incidentally, worked for Exxon before joining Ford in July 1994, after her engineer husband, Bradley, accepted a job in the Detroit area.

Although she works with quite a few female engineers at Ford, that was not the case at Exxon, where Ms. Zechman says the old-boy network was intact. Still, she never felt like a minority. And if there's one thing she learned from her mother, it's that people sense how you feel about yourself and treat you accordingly.

What lies ahead? Following her three-year stint in London, the mother looks forward to new challenges -- anywhere in the world -- perhaps on the product side.

As for the daughter, she would like nothing better than to follow in her mother's footsteps -- and she certainly has the right attitude to do that.

When Pat Shockling's Bronco team does the two-step, Ford keeps the beat; and when the team sheds pounds, Ford gains. Cutting from 22 to two the number of buttons that must be pushed to check radio speakers, and reducing the weight of a torsion bar from 35 lbs. to 15 lbs. to make the tailgate easier to lift are just two of the many ways Pat's 30-member Plant Vehicle Team (PVT) at Ford's Michigan Truck Plant cuts costs and improves quality at the plant level.

The PVT concept was born at Ford's Dagenham Plant in England about three years ago and has been adopted worldwide under the Ford 2000 program. Ms. Shockling, a 13-year Ford employee with a master's degree in mechanical engineering and an MBA (both from the University of Michigan) has just the right engineering/business orientation Ford looks for in selecting leaders for the cross-functional teams whose members span a wide range of disciplines. "PVTs have the wherewithal to make decisions right on the plant floor and then execute the changes," Ms. Shockling says.

Although currently the sole female among PVT leaders at the 32 Ford lead plants (plants with primary responsibility for a specific platform) worldwide, Ms. Shockling is completely at ease in meetings with her male counterparts. "It's not about being a woman," she stresses emphatically. "It's about competence and confidence."

Woman to woman

Charles Kettering is credited with putting women behind the wheel by inventing (for Cadillac) the automobile self-starter as a replacement for the difficult-to-operate and sometimes dangerous crank. Eighty-five years later, Linda Lee aims to get--and keep -- the growing number of women auto buyers behind the wheel of a Ford.

Ms. Lee heads up the Women's Marketing and Product Office, established in mid-1995, to integrate and unify Ford's women's marketing activities worldwide and address issues relevant to women consumers.

A graduate of Cornell University with a master's degree from Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communication, Ms. Lee had been with Ford Public Relations since 1977. But she's no stranger to her new discipline, having served as co-chair of Ford's Women's Marketing Committee.

The staff is small -- just Ms. Lee, a couple of engineers and a secretary -- and its task seems immense, but Ms. Lee notes that some 600 Ford women, including about 500 in the U.S., are involved on a voluntary basis. These women sit on committees or evaluate vehicles for a variety of women-friendly (or unfriendly) characteristics, including ease of operation, entry and exit.

Reporting to both the marketing and sales and the product development organizations, the group's multilayered responsibilities involve everything from product design to marketing strategies, to final selling, including developing training programs for dealers.