Just discharged from the Royal Air Force and "needing a job," Alex Trotman joined Ford of Britain as a management trainee in 1955. In a career that included senior product-development posts in Europe and the United States, Trotman earned a reputation for being a passionate cost cutter and a can-do manager. He was named Ford Motor Co. chairman and CEO on Nov. 1, 1993, the first foreign-born executive to hold those posts. He retired Jan. 1, 1999.
Trotman, 69, spoke with James R. Crate about his 44 years at Ford.
What makes Ford Motor Co. special?
It's the people. It's a very strong group of talented people with tremendous loyalty to the company. I'm very pragmatic about the mixing of people across oceans. It seems time and time again that you can find creativity and energy in mixing people. By mixing nationalities and occupational groups, you can often find solutions to problems more readily than if you approached them one-dimensionally.
What's your favorite Ford vehicle?
It would have to be the Cortina, for obvious reasons. (Trotman credits his work as head product analyst on the hugely successful Cortina program in Britain for jump-starting his Ford career. The Cortina was launched as a sedan in 1962 with a 1.2-liter engine. More than 4 million were sold worldwide in several variants over the next eight years.)
What was your most memorable event at Ford?
It was the rollout for the new Mustang in October 1993, when (Chairman) Red Poling drove into Dearborn Assembly in a red Mustang, handed me the keys and announced to the workers that I was going to be the new CEO.
How does Ford spot a young Alex Trotman early in his career and decide that he should be brought along?
That's a very appropriate question: How do you get through the maze? A huge component of it is luck. You have to be at the right place at the right time because there are an awful lot of smart people at Ford.
There was a whole progression of lucky breaks for me, beginning with the development of the Cortina program, which I was fortunate enough to be deeply involved in. That brought me to the attention of Henry Ford II.
Then there came the creation of Ford of Europe, and I was plucked out of the ranks to become its first director of product planning. That put me into a very high visibility position in the Ford corporate world.
For what would you like to be remembered?
I would like to be thought of as a team player, a dedicated team player remembered for getting the very best out of every single person on the team.
Despite your career-long preparation, were you surprised by any aspect of the job when you became CEO?
It wasn't a surprise in the sense of a rabbit jumping out of a hat, but I learned that the chairman of a company like Ford has to spend a lot of time dealing with Washington, with the unions and with the governors of several states. A tremendous amount of his time is taken up with external events.
As you come up the ranks of an auto company, most of your life is spent on automobiles. When you get into the chairman's seat, there's a really big change that you can't appreciate until
you're in that seat.