Fields' track record shows he has leadership chops to silence critics
Yes, Mark Fields' Ford career has been fabulously successful, but a cloud of doubt still follows him.
Critics tend to dismiss him as an "MBA," or worse still, a "Harvard MBA" (he's guilty on both counts). It's a polite way of calling the guy an empty suit.
Where's the car-guy cred, they ask? The signature vehicles, the trail of turnarounds, the bold initiatives, the mottos on laminated cards, the evidence that Fields can succeed Alan Mulally?
But look again. The 53-year-old New Jersey native, who today was named Ford's next CEO, has been handed a series of big and complex assignments in the past 15 years. He also has been asked to fill some big shoes, and before taking each job there have been cynics. They always expect Fields to fail -- and he never does.
Yet when Fields takes over on July 1, he will have to prove himself again.
"We're not talking about an untested manager," said Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas. "We're talking about a war-tested veteran who saw all that went wrong and all that went right going into and out of the reinvention of the company."
Mulally transformed Ford in the past 71/2 years. He depoliticized the company, replacing fiefdoms with transparency and teamwork. He simplified the global product lineup on a few platforms and is raking in profits.
Fields has to follow up, but he has been a key part the changes all along.
"Alan gravitated toward Mark as his right-hand man," said Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Karl Brauer. "He wasn't an automotive guy. Mark walked Alan through all the specifics that were beyond Alan's experience, all the things that make the industry tick, just as Alan shared with Mark the art of rebuilding a company and maintaining a team effort. The two were perfect for each other."
Fields is replacing a larger-than-life CEO, but he has been in similar situations. At 38, he became the youngest-ever chief executive of a major Japanese automaker when his Ford bosses made him head of Mazda in 2000. He then stepped in for BMW-bred luxury car luminary Wolfgang Reitzle as head of Ford's Premier Automotive Group in London.
When Fields was brought to Dearborn from London in fall 2005 to fix Ford's crumbling North American business, there were doubters. When Mulally was installed over him less than a year later, there was talk that Fields would leave.
But Mulally quickly built on moves Fields was already making.
Dealership consolidation, for instance. When Ford accelerated Fields' Way Forward plan just weeks after Mulally's arrival, shrinking the dealer network faster was a key element. It was something Fields had been pushing. Before Fields, Ford had blocked dealer efforts to consolidate. But Fields got the budget and made it happen, starting with Buffalo, N.Y. The Buffalo approach, which became the buyout formula used by Ford, spread widely under Fields and Mulally.
Fields spent nine years as president of Ford in the Americas and has racked up record profits along the way.
So he is a proven manager, but is he in Mulally's class as a leader?
Fields began to win over skeptics when he swallowed his own ambitions after being passed over in favor of Mulally. Taking charge of the Americas, Fields bided his time and became a convert to his boss' strategy.
In a 2012 interview, Fields said he had learned to "be comfortable in my own skin." He also learned another crucial lesson: "Product is still absolutely king. Period. Never compromise."
Since being named COO in 2012, Fields has led the weekly Thursday morning business plan review meetings, during which Ford's leadership team reports on progress in carrying out Mulally's One Ford plan. Mulally has sat at the table mentoring his protege.
Famously, Fields impressed Mulally during a 2006 business plan review meeting when Fields halted production of the Edge crossover because of a balky tailgate latch. Mulally, frustrated no one was reporting problems even though Ford was losing $17 billion in its automotive operations that year, began clapping when Fields spoke up, a move Fields had feared could cost him his job, according to Bryce Hoffman's book American Icon.
"Great visibility, Mark," Mulally recalled saying in a 2010 interview. "Is there anything we can do to help you?"
Longtime Fields watchers believe he is equal to the task. He turned around Mazda's shaky finances and proved his leadership skills in Japan, particularly in marketing. Mazda's acclaimed "Zoom-Zoom" advertising campaign was designed to refocus the brand on its sporty, distinctive heritage.
At Premier Automotive Group, which included Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo, Fields downsized an unwieldy, costly empire, a prelude to the eventual sell-off of the brands by Mulally. Once in North America, Fields brought designer Peter Horbury over from Volvo to bring a new styling flair that would set Ford vehicles apart from Japanese and Korean counterparts. Fields called the approach "red, white and bold."
Morgan Stanley's Jonas says Fields will get an early test of his leadership skills as Ford launches the aluminum 2015 F-150 pickup this year.
"We're anticipating a very difficult changeover," he said. "There may be moments along the journey where the investment community might say, 'Yeah, Mulally left and the company is struggling.'"
But Jonas this month talked with Fields and Executive Chairman Bill Ford at a Ford Mustang 50th anniversary ceremony atop the Empire State Building during the New York auto show.
"It was very clear to me that Mark was very, very well informed about all aspects of switching from steel to aluminum," Jonas said.
Jeff Carlson, owner of Glenwood Springs Ford in Glenwood Springs, Colo., believes the Mulally way has taken deep hold at Ford.
"We have more than green shoots of Mulallyism," he said. "I think we're past that. He's rooted substantial change in the culture that is just not going to go away quickly and roll back to the old ways.
"Mark Fields cannot be Alan Mulally but with his style he can continue a lot of the charismatic leadership elements that Alan put in place," Carlson said. "I have no worries about Mark Fields."
Amy Wilson contributed to this report.
You can reach Bradford Wernle at email@example.com.