Ligocki was working for a supplier. She gave a presentation before an audience that included Jacques Nasser, Ford's CEO, and Martin Inglis, now Ford's CFO. On the strength of that meeting, Inglis began an immediate campaign to recruit Ligocki. He succeeded.
Three years later, Ligocki is a powerful executive at Ford and one of the most influential women in the automotive business.
This month, Ligocki assumed a new vice presidency in Ford's North American operations. Her mission: determine what Ford needs to do to regain its competitive footing and help make it happen.
Ligocki is a key player in the cabinet of Nick Scheele, Ford's new group vice president of North American operations. If history is anything to go by, Ligocki, 44, soon will be widely known within Ford.
Lin Cummins, senior vice president for communications at ArvinMeritor Inc. in Troy, Mich., said: 'I spent 19 years at Ford. I worked with all of the chairmen back to Henry Ford II. Kathleen Ligocki is one of the brightest executives, male or female, I have ever worked with. She understands business strategy and what needs to be done. Then she goes out and makes it happen.' Cummins worked with Ligocki when both women were vice presidents at United Technologies Automotive in Dearborn, Mich.
Ligocki may win praise from colleagues for her intellect, enthusiasm and ability to deliver results. But she is now in an inner circle that historically has not embraced women. She will need to draw on all her talents to succeed at the top of an industry still dominated by men.
Right now, Ligocki is earning high marks in Mexico, where she is winding up an 18-month stint as president of Ford of Mexico. Ligocki said she joined Ford as director of business strategy in 1998 with the understanding that an operational assignment would follow within two years.
In Mexico, Ligocki played a pivotal role in reshaping Ford's car lineup, moving the automaker into popularly priced classes. Since January, Ford has buttressed its lineup by importing the Ford Fiesta from the United Kingdom and the Ford Ka and Fiesta Courier from Brazil and assembling the Ford Ikon in Mexico.
In the second quarter, Ford's car sales climbed to 18,000 units and a 13 percent share, up from 15,000 cars and a 9 percent share in the first quarter, said Eduardo Serrano, Ford of Mexico marketing and sales director. More gains are expected.
'Kathleen understands the dynamics of this marketplace and how it is changing,' Serrano said. 'The lower B-sized cars dominate the car industry in Mexico, and Ford hasn't participated in that market for many, many years. Now we are competing full-fledged.'
Ligocki said she expanded the lineup by challenging the ingrained assumption that Ford could not make money selling smaller vehicles in Mexico. Instead, she began working with Ford's operations in Brazil and Europe to find ways to take costs out of the vehicles and build the case for importing the vehicles to Mexico.
'She put together some records for Ford of Mexico,' Inglis said. For example, Ford Credit is now financing 60 percent of the Ford vehicles sold in Mexico compared with 28 percent in 1999.
'Kathleen has a fabulous intellect, an extremely enthusiastic personality and a track record of being able to implement,' Inglis said.
She headed the first automotive delegation to meet with new Mexican President Vicente Fox earlier this year.
Looking at North America
Ligocki brings her skills to a North American operation that faces an array of problems from falling market share to vehicle quality problems to the Firestone tire debacle.
As vice president of Canada, Mexico and North America strategy, she will oversee Ford's Mexican and Canadian operations. Operating chiefs in both markets will report to Ligocki.
More critical will be her role as strategic adviser to Scheele and his executive team charged with getting Ford back on track in North America.
'Strategy really means what you are going to do and not going to do,' Ligocki said. 'You put in the metrics. And then you let everyone go and do the work.
'We need to think through the next years in terms of quality, products and our services portfolio.'
Ligocki expects to work with Shamel Rushwin, also moving into a new vice presidency for North America business operations. One of the biggest challenges facing the pair will be articulating clearly the priorities and how they will be achieved, Ligocki said.
'How do we get the work done? How do we achieve the vision we want? We can put any strategy on paper. But if you can't execute it, it doesn't make any difference.'
Challenging base assumptions helps achieve results, Ligocki said.
'We may need five vehicle lines but can only afford to do two,' she said. 'What base assumptions can you challenge instead of saying, `I will only do two'?'
For example, Ford of Europe recently had to beef up its product lineup while holding down costs.
Said Ligocki: 'What Europe did was say, `Listen, we need to have this many new vehicles. We only have this much money. We can't afford to do all the powertrains ourselves, so we need to expand our relationship with Peugeot.' You do it in a different way. Peugeot is developing four diesel engines with Ford.'
Winning over dealers
Ligocki describes herself as a straightforward person whose management style is to give people the freedom needed to get the job done.
Said Serrano: 'Kathleen likes to make sure that we understand what it is we want to pursue. Then you go ahead and do it.'
Ligocki is also unabashedly enthusiastic, an attribute that led to her recruitment at Ford, Inglis said. For example, in deciding to name Ligocki president of Ford of Mexico, company executives wrestled with the issue of a woman working in the 'macho society' in that country, Inglis said. Ligocki overcame the obstacle using her operational abilities and the exuberance of her personality, he said.
Inglis cited Ligocki's success in overturning dealer resistance to her appointment. Business reviews conducted with dealers can be long, tedious and sometimes acrimonious. 'Dealers find it a bit disarming at the end of a dealer review when the head of a company asks for a dance after dinner, which she does,' Inglis said.
Ramon Llano, owner of two Ford dealerships in Mexico City, said dealers were nervous when Ford announced Ligocki's appointment. That dissipated after the first meeting, he said. 'Others have come in and they start telling you what they are going to do and change. They haven't even asked what your problems are,' Llano said. 'She was a very good listener. That was the most striking thing. Then she started to act. Every issue we brought up to her she basically fixed for us.
'There was an internal issue about getting our incentives paid on time. For dealers, that is very important. She fixed that completely.'