The next head of Ford of Europe is a man in a hurry. As a teenager Martin Leach, 45, raced against drivers such as Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in the European karting championships. He finished second in the driver standings one year. Then rheumatoid arthritis forced him to retire.
Leach turned to an engineering career at Ford Motor Co. But he never lost his love of competition, and he brought his passion for fast cars to his current job as Ford's European product development chief. More than many in the industry, Leach has a keen sense of driving dynamics, an area Ford is trying to claim as a brand attribute.
Now Leach is set to inherit the top job at Ford of Europe. David Thursfield, current chairman and CEO, will move to Detroit soon to assume control of Ford's international operations and global purchasing. Leach will take his place in Europe, though his title has not been determined.
While Thursfield led a major cost-cutting effort at Ford of Europe, Leach launched a new-product offensive that has helped boost the Ford brand's long-slumping western European market share from 8.8 percent last year to 9.2 percent in January through April this year.
A series of new products including the Mondeo and a brand new Fiesta is driving Ford's reversal of fortune. Niche products such as the Pininfarina-engineered StreetKa and Focus ST170 and Mondeo ST220 are attempts to recapture Ford's lead in styling and performance.
But potential segment breakers such as the new Ford Fusion 'urban activity vehicle' may hold the real key to success in a fragmented marketplace, Leach believes. He took credit for killing a small minivan project based on the Focus when he arrived at Ford from Mazda in March 2000.
'I didn't like anything about it,' he said earlier this year.
Leach is in search of what product developers call 'white space' - untapped territory between vehicle segments.
Unusually for an engineer, Leach has a flair for marketing and spent several years in Ford's marketing department.
Though Ford has embarked upon a modest recovery, regaining further share in western Europe's mature, competitive market will be difficult.
Ford began its restructuring with the closure of the Dagenham, England, assembly plant in February - and it must maintain momentum. The company must also find a successor for the Galaxy full-size minivan once its platform-sharing arrangement with Volkswagen ends in 2004.
Leach must also prove he can command the same employee loyalty as Thursfield and Nick Scheele, the former Ford of Europe chairman who became Ford Motor Co's chief operating officer.
Ford insiders say Leach's upbeat, enthusiastic style should help him.
Leach sponsored a recent event for test drivers at Ford's test track in Lommel, Belgium, and gleefully joined the drivers in competitions.
'The whole event was a tribute by Martin to the team,' said a Ford source.
Leach recently got back in touch with his racing past by turning some extremely fast laps at one of Europe's most challenging circuits - Germany's Nurburgring. Now he prepares to assume one of Europe's most challenging jobs.