Ford will ultimately get its due from Wall Street, Fields says

Fields: “We are not going to get discouraged." Photo credit: GLENN TRIEST

DETROIT -- Ford Motor Co. CEO Mark Fields said delivering strong results is the best way for the automaker to counter the skeptics on Wall Street who sent its shares sliding 5.1 percent Wednesday.

The drop was Ford’s biggest one-day percentage loss in 15 months. It followed Ford’s announcement Tuesday of a record pretax profit in 2015 and projection that it would match or beat that performance in 2016.

Ford also said it would return $1 billion to shareholders in the form of a special dividend and make more such distributions in the future when it made sense to do so.

“We are not going to get discouraged,” Fields said at the Automotive News World Congress. “We are going to focus on the things that drive value creation in our business. … We’re going to focus on continuing to drive the business forward. At some point we’re going to get recognized.”

Fields said he sees challenges from newcomers to the auto industry -- such as Google and Apple -- as good for customers and a “huge opportunity” for Ford. Some analysts have pointed to those challenges as a big risk for traditional automakers. That’s why Ford is so focused on tapping more of the $5.4 billion market for transportation services that it’s never been part of, Fields said.

“We are embracing this,” he said in a conversation with Automotive News Editor and Publisher Jason Stein. “We are not afraid of disruption. We’re going to do it to ourselves.”

Detroit shouldn’t view Silicon Valley as a “shirts vs. skins” battle, Fields explained. Many of the companies there can make good partners, he said, even if they also are acting increasingly like competitors in some ways.

Among other comments from Fields, 54, who was the final executive to speak at this year’s World Congress:

  • Ford has “no regrets whatsoever” about selling its European luxury brands during the downturn. Volvo and Jaguar Land Rover both achieved record sales in 2015.

“I’m happy they’re successful,” Fields said. “It’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback. We had to focus on Ford.”

He said it’s “not in the plan” for Ford to ever own more than two brands in the future but didn’t rule out the possibility. Having one global mass-market brand is a “huge advantage,” Fields said.

  • Ford will offer incentives that are “competitive and appropriate” in 2016 but won’t blindly chase market share if rivals increase discounts. “Some months we won’t do well on share because we have to prioritize profitability,” he said.

Ford’s U.S. share slipped 0.1 percentage point to 14.9 percent in 2015. Now, the company has normal inventories of the aluminum-bodied F-150 pickup and other vehicles that were updated in 2015, which should help with sales, Fields said.

“Market share is important,” he said. “But our objective is to run the business profitably, and you can see that in our results. It’s OK sometimes to have a bit of a smaller business but a more profitable business.”

  • Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk “has done a very good job at putting electrified vehicles on the map,” Fields said. “He tweets a lot, which is interesting.”

The more that Ford, Tesla and other automakers can develop and sell electric vehicles, the better that is for the economy and customers, Fields said. He called General Motors’ upcoming Chevrolet Bolt, unveiled this month, “a nice car.”

Ford last month announced plans to invest $4.5 billion to add 13 electric cars, hybrids and plug-in hybrids to its lineup by 2020.

  • The most important lesson Fields learned from his predecessor, Alan Mulally, was “the power of positive leadership.” He said Ford has been most productive by “getting people to work together in a positive way, not a negative way, and not with fear or power.”

He still holds the weekly “business plan review” meetings with his management team each Thursday morning. Early in Mulally’s tenure, Fields famously revealed a problem with the upcoming launch of the Ford Edge, breaking from a dysfunctional culture in which executives tended to keep problems to themselves for fear of being penalized.

“Our charts look like a rainbow -- red, yellow, green,” Fields said. “That’s about creating a safe environment where people can bring in these issues, and you never know where the help is going to come from.”

You can reach Nick Bunkley at nbunkley@crain.com -- Follow Nick on Twitter: @nickbunkley



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