JASON STEIN

Mulally and Ford soared above skeptics

COMMENTARY
Jason Stein is publisher and editor of Automotive News.
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It's springtime in Las Vegas, 2008. A ballroom at the Mandalay Bay hotel is packed with Ford dealers.

If you have seen one dealer meeting, you have seen them all.

Only no one has seen this before.

As the evening's program starts, the ballroom goes dark. A spotlight shines, and one table is washed in white light as the first person stands.

The speaker is the only thing visible in the room.

"Ford Motor Co. has been in my family for three generations," the dealer begins. And the stories of holding a Ford franchise start. One by one, the spotlight shifts from table to table. One by one, they stand.

Second- and third-generation Ford dealers tell their tales of tradition and history and family and selling Fords.

Jim Farley talks about his grandfather, Henry Ford's 389th employee and later a Ford dealer on Detroit's east side. Even a Ford family member stands in the spotlight and tells a story.

Every speaker ends with the same connector; the same line: "One Ford."

The "plan" is coming to fruition.

The final spotlight of the night hits the relatively new Ford CEO.

"And Alan Mulally just takes over the room," AutoNation COO Mike Maroone remembers. "He told it from his soul."

Maroone's family bleeds Ford blue. His dad's first dealership was a Ford store, bought in 1954 in Middleport, N.Y., a town of 1,800 south of Lake Ontario.

"He talked about the history of the brand, how he was invested in the brand and why he came to Ford," says Maroone, who started working at the store at 13. "He owned the dealers from there."

Mulally, the down-home boy with the infectious Kansas grin, direct from aerospace but straight out of central casting, wasn't what Detroit ever could have imagined.

Ford's announcement today that COO Mark Fields will replace the retiring Mulally on July 1 begins the final act of a story too impossible to have been imagined just eight years ago.

Let's go back.

He was too Boeing. Too aw-shucks. And not enough auto for all the auto guys who had witnessed too many failed Ford comebacks.

He was too scripted, too charismatic, not tough enough and -- by golly, whoa, eight years later, where did this epic American turnaround come from?

The skeptics, remember, were everywhere.

Was he another Ron Zarrella?

Everyone always believed that no one else -- certainly no non-car exec -- could come in and get it. After three restructurings in five years, Ford was wrecked.

Alan Mulally got it.

And it didn't take long for Detroit -- and an industry teetering toward collapse just after 2006 -- to get him.

His goals were focused; his objectives concise enough to fit on a business card.

One Ford. A beauty in simplicity, yet a symphony of complexity.

It didn't take long to understand what Mulally-ism was: common sense, great communication skills and a vision.

With the One Ford plan, Mulally pushed the automaker to develop cars that could be sold worldwide, instead of making products for individual markets. Ford also pushed the boundaries of technology. Fuel efficiency was the new calling card, and so was lightweighting and even an aluminum F-150 truck.

Mulally combined common sense, great communication skills and a vision. His speeches were mesmerizing; his messages were entertainingly simple.

Besides rejuvenating the Ford brand and its models, he cut costs, closed factories and sold all but one of Ford's luxury brands, including Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston Martin. He also killed Mercury to focus on the Ford and Lincoln lines.

And by combining those elements, Mulally did something few leaders at Ford could do as the politically fractured world of Ford coalesced around him: He made sure the fiefdoms worked together. He put the pedal down on product development and pushed the company to do things it had never considered.

He made people accountable. He built a team of dedicated players. He built a bench.

He saved the company.

His speeches were mesmerizing; his messages were entertainingly simple.

Mulally once told a room full of dealers that he loved them, then asked them to repeat it back to him.

Word is, early on, he asked former purchasing chief Tony Brown about Ford's relationships with suppliers. Brown told him they were terrible.

Fractured relationships with suppliers and dealers were extensively repaired over time.

Yes, MyFord Touch remains a blemish. So do troubled launches and vehicles repeatedly recalled over the past few years. And insiders talk of a man who let the Microsoft rumors linger too long before the board forced him to make a decision. The blemishes are minuscule relative to the mountain of accomplishments.

And as his story is written over the coming months, one thread will be clear: Mulally took a battered culture, broke it down, built it back up, simplified it, codified it, galvanized it and made it a model for the industry.

Step back into the spotlight from that night in Las Vegas. It wasn't just an empty promise; it was the plan.

One Ford.

And, clearly, only one Mulally.

You can reach Jason Stein at jstein@crain.com. -- Follow Jason on Twitter


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