November 1, 2012 11:55 pm

Ford – clear signals

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Mulally stays but the satnav has been programmed

Everyone was waiting for transition. What they got was continuity. Ford announced on Thursday that Alan Mulally, the highly respected chief who steered the company through the financial crisis without a bailout, would stay on for at least two more years. Speculation had it that Mark Fields, head of the Americas business, was to be tapped as the next boss sooner.

He will have to wait, and console himself with a promotion to chief operating officer, running Ford’s day-to-day business operations. Mr Fields also will lead the famous weekly meeting instituted by Mr Mulally, where the heads of each region review the business plan and decide where changes or tweaks are needed. All of the regional leaders will now report to Mr Fields and Mr Mulally can focus more on big-picture strategy and new products.

Ford, in sum, has said that a proven leader is going nowhere fast, while at the same time signalling when the transition will probably come; and designated a favourite in the succession race, while leaving its options open and the favourite with plenty of motivation. The company committed to almost nothing. Investors took the same approach; the shares trailed the market slightly following the news.

How can Mr Fields make sure he receives the prize that has been half-promised to him? There are a few, very different challenges. Engineer the restructuring in Europe where losses are expected to top $3bn this year and next. Make big inroads in Asia. Ford opened plants in China and Thailand this year and plans to open seven more in Asia by 2015. The mainstay North America business that Mr Fields was key to fixing also needs to keep humming along. And, of course, he must prove that he can manage other senior staff, some possibly gunning to be the CEO. If he can do all that, Mr Fields more than deserves the job.

Email the Lex team in confidence at lex@ft.com

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