DETROIT -- Ford Motor Co. appointed Mark Fields, president of the Americas unit, as COO, putting him in line to succeed Alan Mulally when he retires no sooner than the end of 2014.
The appointment of Fields, 51, was part of a sweeping overhaul of Ford's executive ranks unveiled today. Speculation about Fields' possible appointment has been ongoing for several weeks. Mulally is 67.
"We felt it was important to put some sort of date out there because there's been so much speculation in terms of when's Alan really going to stay and when's he going to go," Executive Chairman Bill Ford said. "I'd like him to stay forever, but part of being a great CEO is also developing a great team."
Said Mulally during a conference call this morning: "Mark is going to take over responsibility of leading the business plan review for the entire corporation. I'm going to step back from that to further advance the strategic issues of improving the One Ford plan."
The business plan review is the key weekly Thursday meeting that brings the leaders of all Ford's business units together.
Turning over the Thursday meeting to Fields is an important move, Mulally said. The CEO created the meeting to instill accountability and encourage candid dialogue among executives who had previously been known to undermine each other in pursuit of individual glory and enrichment.
"I've seen the before and the after," Bill Ford said. "The culture that exists at Ford here today is so different and so much healthier. People just enjoy it and nobody wants to go back to the days of empire building and backbiting."
Asked if the buck will truly stop with Fields at the Thursday meeting, Mulally said: "It will be really clear to everybody when Mark is running the business plan review. And I'll be there, I'm not going anywhere. I'll be there with him and supporting him. That is the venue where we manage the day-to-day operations. And I'm good help. I'll think I'll be able to help him out a lot."
Asked if he was worried about becoming a lame duck, Mulally responded: "I sure don't," and added, "I've not had a COO before and I am really looking forward to nurturing and supporting Mark and supporting this team, but also contributing."
Ford's board voted to elevate Fields and the other executives at its Oct. 19 meeting, Bill Ford said.
"We're saying at least through 2014," Bill Ford said. "Whatever happens, Alan's here two more years, but, as I say, it's 'at least through,' so we could go longer."
Meanwhile, Joe Hinrichs, 45, currently group vice president and head of Asia Pacific Africa, will succeed Fields as president of the America. Hinrichs currently is president of the Asia Pacific Africa region. (For related story, click here.)
These other moves also take effect Dec. 1:
Jim Farley, 50, becomes executive vice president of global marketing, sales and service as well as Lincoln. Farley, currently a group vice president, adds operating responsibility as the senior global leader for Lincoln. (For related story, click here.)
Stephen Odell, 57, will be president of Europe, Middle East and Africa. He is currently group vice president of Ford of Europe. Africa is being realigned with Europe and the Middle East under Odell.
David Schoch becomes president of Asia Pacific. He is currently chairman and CEO of Ford of China.
John Lawler becomes chairman and CEO of the China unit. He is currently CFO of Ford Asia Pacific Africa.
"The strength of our people and stability of our team are competitive advantages for Ford," Bill Ford said in the company statement. "We are fortunate to have Alan's continued leadership as well as talented senior leaders throughout our company who are developing and working together and delivering on our plan."
Mulally said he doesn't have a contract that specifies when he may leave.
"My contract is a very firm handshake with the chairman and always has been," Mulally said.
Bill Ford, who preceded Mulally as CEO, promoted Fields in 2005 to head of the Americas, Ford's largest business unit. Initially, the youthful looking Fields was chided in the press as a Jersey boy with a mullet haircut.
"I put Mark into that job seven years ago and the growth that we've all seen in him over that period has been remarkable," Bill Ford said. "Alan has done a tremendous job of mentoring Mark. You've just seen the third-quarter results in North America, and they're truly outstanding."
Mulally: "I'm going to step back from that to further advance the strategic issues of improving the One Ford plan."
Praise for Fields
Fields has earned praise for leading Ford's North American unit from record losses four years ago to record profits this year. On Tuesday, Ford's North American unit reported its highest third quarter pre-tax profit and operating margin since 2000, when the company began reporting the region as a separate business unit.
"Mark Fields has proved his worth and proved that he has substance," Rebecca Lindland, an analyst for consultant IHS Automotive, said in September. "This is somebody who has been in the trenches, who was there before Mulally and will be there after. He can bridge the two worlds and continue the cultural change."
Fields won early praise from Mulally for going against Ford's culture of hiding bad news by becoming the first executive to admit a problem to the new boss. Shortly after arriving from Boeing Co. in September 2006, Mulally instituted a Thursday morning meeting where his top executives are required to report on their initiatives using a green, yellow and red color code to indicate progress, caution and a problem.
Fields was the first to put up a red light because a balky tailgate latch had halted production of the Edge SUV. Mulally, frustrated no one was reporting problems even though Ford was losing $17 billion in its automotive operations that year, began applauding when Fields revealed his red light.
"Great visibility, Mark," Mulally recalled saying in a 2010 interview. "Is there anything we can do to help you?"
Fields later said he had trepidations about revealing the problem because in Ford's previous culture "finger pointing would have ruled the day."
"When I showed that first red, there was a lot of tension in the room," Fields said in a 2010 interview. "Then Alan clapped."
Ford's operating profit in South America fell 91 percent in the year's first nine months to $68 million, as heavy price discounting, weakening currencies and changes in government policies ate into earnings. Ford is losing money in Asia, where it's spending $4.9 billion to expand in China. The automaker projects more than $1.5 billion in European losses this year and again next year.
Those challenges now fall to Fields as he becomes Mulally's second-in-command. Until now, Mulally hasn't had a COO at Ford.
"Mark has got to help him figure out Europe, South America and Asia," Lindland said of Mulally. "They still have an awful lot of work to do. They're not out of the woods yet."
Before he began overseeing the Americas in 2005, Fields gathered extensive experience overseas. He was executive vice president of Ford of Europe and also ran the automaker's European luxury brands, Jaguar, Land Rover, Aston Martin and Volvo, which Mulally later sold.
From 2000 to 2002, Fields was CEO of Mazda Motor Corp., in which Ford had a controlling stake at the time. He led a turnaround at Mazda with several Ford executives with whom he later worked closely to revive Ford's North American business. Ford lost $30.1 billion from 2006 through 2008 and earned $29.5 billion in the last three years, mostly in Fields' North American operations.
Ford's profit margins in North America this week drew the praise of Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Fiat S.p.A. and Chrysler Group LLC.
"Everybody in this business has dreams at night," Marchionne said on Fiat's quarterly earnings conference call on Oct. 30. "I dream of selling as many pickup trucks as Ford, and then I think we can get to double-digit at the same level of speed with which Ford got to. I like the pickup truck business a lot. I drool over it, actually."
Bradford Wernle and Bloomberg contributed to this report.