Ford's next CEO is going to grow on you

James B. Treece is news editor of Automotive News.

I initially found Mark Fields grating.

In 1999, barely weeks after landing in Japan, he was named president of Mazda Motor Corp. I was Automotive News’ Asia Editor in Tokyo then, and I cringed at his lingo. Fields spouted MBA jargon as if he were a freshly minted marketing manager in a Dilbert cartoon, trying to impress people with the latest buzzwords. Yes, he was smart and could talk the talk, but was he really a first-class executive?

Three things changed my view of Fields for the better.

First, Mazda was and is hugely reliant on exports from Japan. It lives and dies with the dollar-yen rate. Mazda also had too much capacity in Japan. To change that, Fields held a series of classes for all Mazda employees, where they studied the company’s competitive environment. Closing each class, Fields would ask: “So what should we do?”

The Japanese staffers would conclude, on their own: “We need an overseas plant,” even if that meant closing a line in Japan.

Second, I watched him struggle through a lousy sales year in Japan with no new product.

I thought vehicle programs had been delayed by the integration of Mazda’s and Ford’s product plans. But when Fields briefed the media on the first of the redesigned cars, he explained that he had delayed some and taken the revenue hit to get them right.

Third, a few years ago, as we finished an interview with Fields, he started to ruminate on his time as president of the Americas for Ford.

In his fast-track career — he had gone from program manager for the Ford Aerostar to Mazda president in just five years — this had been the longest he had held one position, he noted.

He discussed learning what it meant to stay in one spot long enough to have to live with the results of his decisions, to see both good times and bad from the same desk and to bond with colleagues over years of successes and failures. It was a reflective side I hadn’t seen from Fields before and completely jargon-free.

You can reach James B. Treece at jtreece@crain.com



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