Mark Fields, Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F)
With widespread reports this week that Ford (NYSE:F) CEO and turnaround master Alan Mulally will step down before the end of the year, COO Mark Fields, his hand-picked successor, is expected to step up to the plate.
Investors and the automotive world have had a long time to watch the 53-year-old Fields, who has spent nearly half his life at Ford. Fields, who took over North American operations the year before Mulally came on board, drafted “The Way Forward,” a cost-cutting plan to strategically realign Ford to new auto market realities.
Still, it was Mulally, an aerospace engineer who had spent 37 years at Boeing (NYSE:BA), who took a sluggish, unwieldy carmaker that lost $12.7 billion in 2006 and turned it into a leaner, meaner competitor that earned $8.6 billion in 2013. It was also Mulally who in 2006 mortgaged Ford’s future to obtain a $23.6 billion cushion that kept the company out of bankruptcy and bolstered the company’s position.
Fields was a trusted commander at Mulally’s side the entire time, but what kind of CEO will Fields be once Mulally has moved on to his next big challenge?
As his 25-year tenure supports, Fields is the ultimate Ford insider — he’s also close to Executive Chairman Bill Ford. That said, he easily adapted to outsider Mulally’s management style of cutting across fiefdoms within Ford and forging greater collaboration among the management team. That suggests Fields either can easily adapt tactics to accomplish important priorities, or he’s an enigma hiding in plain sight.
Fields has demonstrated that he’s not afraid to make tough decisions, particularly on the cost-cutting side. But the jury is out on how well he can navigate challenges that require more of a velvet glove than the iron fist: future relations with the United Auto Workers union, for example, as well as the plan forward for Ford Europe and the master strategy for emerging markets like China.
Fields also will be judged on executing Ford’s new “Blueprint for Mobility” successfully. At the New York Auto show this month, he threw down the technology gauntlet by proclaiming that Ford is now thinking “not just like a car company, but a mobility company.”
Having a solid grasp of forward-focused technology is essential to Ford’s future, but even founder Henry Ford viewed technology and innovation as an enabler of business strategy, not the strategy itself. That adds to the challenge Fields will have following a rock star CEO who quite literally drove Ford back from the brink.