DETROIT -- Anne Stevens may be the first top auto executive who admits to using hugs as a management tool. But, boy, look where it's taken her.
Stevens, 56, climbed another rung on the corporate ladder last week when Ford Motor Co. named her executive vice president and COO of the Americas. She becomes top lieutenant to Mark Fields, president of the Americas -- and the highest ranking woman at an automaker.
The pair face a monster challenge. They must revive Ford's core North American auto business, which lost $907 million before taxes in the second quarter of 2005. That will require tough moves: cutting jobs, closing plants and slashing suppliers.
Stevens, who describes her management style as "push, push, hug," is cut out for the job, admirers say.
"It's a very good move," says Allan Gilmour, who retired as Ford vice chairman this year. "She's a very competent person."
Placing responsibility for manufacturing, product development and purchasing with one executive will cut down on bureaucracy and speed up decision making and execution, Gilmour says.
Stevens, who was born in Reading, Pa., and was trained as an engineer, knows those areas of the business. She joined Ford as a marketing specialist in its plastics products division in 1990 after holding various positions at what is now ExxonMobil Corp.
Anne Stevens flexes her muscles at a 2004 event honoring the ''Rosie the Riveters'' who kept U.S. factories running during World War II. Now she gets to flex her muscles in a new job: COO for the Americas at Ford.
Stevens' Ford career started to take off in 1995 when she moved to England to become the company's first female plant manager in Europe. She eventually ran all of Ford's North American assembly and stamping plants.
In 2003, Stevens became Ford's first female group vice president, taking on oversight of Canada, Mexico and South America. Ford's operations in those regions -- the equivalent of a Fortune 200 company with about $10 billion in revenue -- improved under her leadership. In 2004, sales rose 8 percent and exports jumped 25 percent.
Ford increased market share in South America, where it has long struggled. The company made a profit there last year for the first time since at least 2000, the company says.
Stevens, who has appeared three times on the Fortune list of the 50 most powerful women in business, hasn't been shy about her ambitions.
"I want more," she told Automotive News in August. "I want more responsibility in terms of the business. I can do more. I'm capable of doing more. And I want more. I do want to be a CEO."
Doubt and devotion
The COO post is the 10th job Stevens has held in her 15 years at Ford. Some question whether she is ready for the task.
"That's the problem at Ford," a former company executive says. "You can never really judge anyone's performance because they're never in a job long enough."
But Stevens has won the confidence of many colleagues. In addition to her hugs, she's known for her ability to power-shop (the cable shopping channel QVC is a favorite) and for her tough but caring treatment of employees.
Susan Brennan, a Ford director of manufacturing, recalled in an August interview how Stevens intervened after Brennan's second bout of premature labor midway into her pregnancy.
Stevens got Brennan's doctor on the phone. They told Brennan she could either supervise plants closer to home and cut out travel or go on medical leave.
"I wanted to be able to continue my job while pregnant without getting any special treatment. I was very sensitive to that," Brennan said. "And in the end, I ended up getting special treatment. But had I not, my daughter probably wouldn't be here today."
Brennan says she wants to follow the career trail Stevens has blazed. She is one of many female colleagues with whom Stevens has bonded. Stevens started a women's networking group while in England and continues to mentor junior executives.
Stevens also helped launch the "Buddy's Bunch" -- a group of female Ford executives who used to gather at Buddy's Pizza in Dearborn, Mich., after work. They'd drink wine and talk about business.
"We reorganized the company how many times?" Stevens recalled.
That was just over pizza. Now she gets the chance to do it for real.
You may e-mail Amy Wilson at [email protected]