The appointment of Alex Trotman as chairman and CEO of Ford Motor Co. in 1993 affirmed a process begun just a little over 80 years earlier, when the automaker opened its first overseas plant in Manchester, England.
Since then, the company had hewed to a bedrock belief in internationalization. Now it was naming a 60-year-old Scot as the first foreign-born head of the company.
At a rollout ceremony for the redesigned 1994 Mustang at the sprawling Rouge plant in Dearborn, Mich., on Oct. 4, 1993, Ford Chairman Red Poling handed Trotman the keys to an arrest-me red Mustang - and, symbolically, to the company.
Poling said of the succession:
"The work of building a great company is never done. From Henry Ford II to Phil Caldwell to Don Petersen and me, the role of CEO has passed from one to the next. And now it passes to Alexander J. Trotman."
Most observers thought the appointment was deserved. During a career that began in 1955 as a purchasing department trainee at Ford of Britain, Trotman had earned a reputation for being a passionate, brilliant engineer and a can-do manager.
But a foreigner taking the helm of this American industrial icon?
"My being British was never even considered, was never a factor, in the decision to make me CEO," Trotman said in a recent interview.
"At Ford, no one gives a hoot what nationality you are. The emphasis is on performance. It's never seemed unnatural to send a South African to Spain or an American to Europe or a Norwegian to America. Red lights don't come on; no one asks, 'How come a Brit is becoming chairman?' "
That mind-set has made Ford the industry leader in promoting foreign executives to the highest levels.
To succeed Trotman as CEO in 1999, Ford tapped Australian Jacques Nasser. Now 13 of Ford's 49 corporate officers, including COO Nick Scheele and one of the company's two executive vice presidents, are foreign-born.
The total increases to 22 if the heads of units such as Ford of Mexico or Aston Martin Jaguar Land Rover North America are included, according to a tally furnished by Ford. By way of comparison, the much bigger General Motors numbers 11 foreign-born executives among its 56 corporate officers.
Trotman, who retired in December 1998, has become nonexecutive chairman of Britain's Imperial Chemicals Industries Ltd. and a member of the House of Lords, where he sits as Lord Trotman of Osmotherly.
It starts at the top
He credits Henry Ford II for creating a company mind-set that downplays nationality in favor of diversity in management.
"I don't think it was ever mandated that, 'Thou shall be a multinational management group,' " Trotman said. "The culture just seemed to grow.
"But like most things in business, it grows by example from the top. And Henry Ford II had a true international outlook and was a real pragmatist in dealing with people. He looked for performance; he didn't care where he found it."
Trotman joined Ford "because I needed a job" after a stint in the Royal Air Force, flying as a navigator in the rear seat of a night fighter. Neither Detroit nor the company chairmanship was anywhere on his radar screen at the time, he says.
"I had maybe seen Detroit in the movies, but that was all," he said. "I had no awareness of the place, or ambitions to get there.
"No, I thought Ford of England was a huge company. That was my horizon at the time to see if I could make my way in that huge pile at Dagenham (Ford's Rouge-like complex in England)."
But he says Henry Ford II began changing the company in ways that allowed foreign-born executives to begin standing out in the organization, primarily by increasing the flow of ideas and executives between the U.S. mother ship and overseas units.
In 1967, Trotman, recognized for his work on the hugely successful Cortina small car and on a program to commonize a major family of vehicles between Germany and the United States, was named the first head of product planning for the newly created Ford of Europe. "The European job was my big break, my first major step off the island so to speak," he says.
"It put me into a very high visibility position in the corporate world, so there was an opportunity there to be seen and to make a mark. I began to see then that there was a possible road into a bigger job in Ford's corporate world."
Scheele, also a Brit and part German, says Ford's commitment to management diversity is unmatched in the auto industry. That's because Ford is a "national-blind" company instead of a multinational company, he says. "Can you imagine Toyota being run by a non-Japanese person? Can you imagine Volkswagen being run by a non-German? The answer is always no, and you can't imagine it happening, frankly," he says.
"Now why can you at Ford? The answer is because we're national-blind. You're a Ford person. You're not an American or a Brit or a German. You're a Ford person, and I think that is a significant plus."
Like Trotman, Scheele started his career as a purchasing trainee at Ford's British unit after failing to gain entrance to his first career choice - Her Majesty's Foreign Service. Also like Trotman, Scheele admits that it took several years for him to develop a sense of being part of a bigger American company.
"A U.S. company ? No, I wasn't really conscious of that, certainly not when I joined," he says. "It was just Ford, a name that occupies a huge place in the British consciousness as a British company. It wasn't an American company."
Nasser, who left the company in 2001 after being replaced as CEO by Chairman Bill Ford, emphasizes that no one factor led to Ford opening its most senior management ranks so widely to people from other countries.
"No one event, trait or history got us here,'' Nasser says.
But he points out that Ford has been an international company from its earliest days. Today's corporation, Nasser says, revolves around national companies reporting to one of four business supergroups - North America, Europe, Asia-Pacific or Latin America.
The heads of the overseas units generally get broader experience than same-age or same-level executives in the home market - experience that naturally translates into career progress, he says.
"These people run virtually independent businesses," Nasser says. "They get to touch everything - unions and government relations, making payroll, treasury and banking relationships, dealing with suppliers and employees, competing in the marketplace."
"Therefore, they get more experience in running a company in terms of leadership, team building and facing competitors, than someone at home. Naturally, that's a plus when one is being considered for other assignments."
In practical terms, though, the internationalization of Ford's upper ranks has been the almost exclusive province of British executives. Of the 22 foreign-born senior executives who Ford says are vice president or the equivalent and above, 17 are Britons.
One German, one Taiwanese, one Canadian, one Swede and a Brazilian round out the list.
Scheele says two factors explain the heavy load of Brits in Ford's upper reaches. One is that executives who do not speak English as their first language often limit their own mobility because of family considerations.
"If you're American or British, you can find schools for your children anywhere in the world," Scheele says. "But if you're not, it's impossible in most places. A lot of people turn down corporate reassignment for that reason, which of course limits their advancement."
The other important factor is the sourcing of Fords' management recruits, he says.
"The only place in the world where Ford has had a steady No. 1 market share is Britain, so that makes us an attractive employer for new college graduates there," Scheele says.
"Similarly, we've had a dominant share over the years in Australia, so Ford is attractive there as well. This factor has an influence on who rises within management because you start out recruiting from a bigger pool."
But Scheele, Nasser and Albert Caspers, a German who was chairman of Ford of Europe from 1994 to 1996 and who is now retired, say they expect Ford someday to name a CEO who does not consider English as his or her first language.
"I think Ford would not have any problem appointing a German as CEO," Caspers says. "I don't think nationality would play any role in the decision."