DETROIT - A string of surprise exits in recent months have depleted the management ranks at Ford Motor Co.
Ford no doubt still boasts many strong executives. And top executives say they're satisfied with the strength of the leadership team. But the company undeniably has suffered a loss of talent with the departures of executives such as Phil Martens, Mary Ann Wright and Earl Hesterberg.
For the most part, Ford has replaced its losses by promoting from within.
"There isn't any question. There's an experience/brain drain," said Paul Czamanske, a former Ford executive who is now CEO of Compass Group, an US executive search firm in Michigan.
Another Ford alumnus says Ford can't afford to lose key talent, no matter how good their replacements might be.
"It's a shame they're losing so many good people, possibly for the wrong reasons," said the former executive, who left this year. "There is a dearth of talent there. They need to recruit some new people and bring some new blood in."
Ford isn't happy about losing talent, Ford human resources chief Joe Laymon told Automotive News Europe. But he says the company hasn't paid a price in its core disciplines.
"I would defy anyone to show me empirically where, as a result of the talent that has gone, we have taken a step back," said Laymon, group vice president of corporate human resources and labor affairs.
Even so, the abrupt changes can be awkward. As recently as September 21, CEO Bill Ford included Phil Martens, then the group vice president of product creation, as one of the executives poised to lead Ford Motor into the future. On October 7, Martens resigned to become Chief Operating Officer of supplier Plastech Engineered Products of Dearborn, Michigan.
Matt DeMars, vice president of North America vehicle operations, went with Martens to Plastech. Martens' protege and hybrid chief Mary Ann Wright also had resigned by the end of October.
Earl Hesterberg kicked off the year of surprise goodbyes at Ford by stepping down as group vice president of marketing, sales and service in April. Hesterberg had taken the post in January - moving to the US from his job as Ford of Europe's marketing and sales chief .
Hesterberg left Ford to become CEO of Group 1 Automotive Inc., a US public dealership company.
One industry expert says it's too early to tell whether the upheaval will hurt Ford's recovery efforts. The automaker still has plenty of "intellectual horsepower," says Dave Cole, head of the Center for Automotive Research.
The company may have been ripe for shrinkage anyway, he says: "If you look at Ford today, I think they are overstaffed. You do not need as many people on the team as you used to."
Some of the turnover is likely a result of Mark Fields' September appointment as president of the Americas. Before his promotion Fields was Ford's executive vice president of Ford of Europe and Premier Automotive Group. Ford acknowledged October 10 that there would be fallout while Fields put together his own turnaround team.
On top of Fields' actions, Ford is culling lower-level managers. The company plans to eliminate 2,750 salaried positions in North America by year-end. Many have been dismissed involuntarily.
Fields' restructuring could lead to the reduction of up to 30 percent of Ford's salaried North American automotive work force of 35,000 in the next few years, sources have said.
By some accounts, all the disruption is causing some Ford executives to rethink their career paths.
Czamanske says his headhunting firm is getting about 100 unsolicited resumes every day from managers at troubled automotive companies, including Ford. "A lot of people are saying, 'I'd better put my line in the water and just see what's happening,' " he said. "They're losing a lot of experience and talent. There are a lot of people who are 35, 40, who are bright, educated people, but they haven't been there, done that."