When Mark Fields is named heir apparent to Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally, a pile of thorny problems will land on his desk.
Ford sources say that anointing will happen, probably sooner rather than later, even though press reports that the board would name Fields as Ford COO last week proved false.
Mulally, 67, has transformed Ford from a basket case to a dynamo-in-the-making, but there's still plenty to do.
After seven years as president of the Americas, Fields, 51, will do a stint as COO before becoming CEO. And as Mulally's second-in-command, with global responsibilities, he'll be dealing with a big new to-do list:
1. Restore Ford's global balance. Ford was once a truly global enterprise, with strong operations in Europe, South America and, through then-partner Mazda Motor Corp., Asia. Now it's bleeding in Europe and is a bit player in China, the world's largest vehicle market.
Ford of Europe projects a loss in excess of $1 billion this year. There's no guarantee that Mulally's plan for additional vehicles in the European lineup will fix that. The company has not announced any production cuts there.
As former head of Ford of Europe and Ford's Premier Automotive Group of luxury brands, Fields understands both the volume and luxury sectors in Europe and the complex nature of the business there.
In China, Ford needs to stay the course: aggressively opening assembly plants and signing up dealers. Ford also needs a quick, smooth launch of its Lincoln luxury brand there to dramatically increase the brand's volume.
2. Rethink Lincoln's product plan. Fields was among those within Ford who argued in favor of the need for a modern rear-wheel-drive sedan to replace the old Lincoln Town Car. He lost that argument, but it's something Ford may want to reconsider.
Although the 2013 Lincoln MKZ sedan shares no sheet metal with its Ford Fusion sibling, the two are built on the same platform. Many Lincoln skeptics still believe the car is little more than a Fusion with extra perfume and jewelry. They say Lincoln needs a rwd sedan to have any credibility in the luxury market. Nothing short of an investment in a dedicated platform will convince the doubters that Ford is committed to a long-term future for Lincoln.
Fields knows all about the luxury car business from his years running Premier Automotive Group. He knows the importance of distinct luxury brands. With Lincoln now committed to entering the Chinese market in 2014, there may be a better business case for a dedicated platform.
3. Get a grip on the gadgets. Unlike Mulally, Fields is not an engineer by trade. But he needs to think like one. Early on, Mulally made an unswerving commitment to renewing Henry Ford's mantra of providing technology to the masses.
Mulally's Ford may have been a little too enamored with being on the leading edge. The MyFord Touch infotainment system was launched before it was ready for prime time. Ford has paid a huge price in consumer surveys, losing much of the quality ground it had gained. Meanwhile, Ford is reportedly considering a plan to replace major steel components with aluminum on the next-generation F-series pickup, Ford's biggest selling and most profitable vehicle, to save weight and improve fuel economy. But while steel has proved its durability in pickups, the jury is still out on aluminum.
There's a fine balance between being a technology pioneer and jumping head first into uncharted waters.
When he was Mazda's president, Fields insisted the cars not go to market until the technology was ready. At Mazda, that meant having suspensions, engines and other mechanicals that aligned fully with the brand's desired characteristics. At Ford, it should mean getting the glitches out.
As a shrewd veteran of product planning, Fields can act as a tempering influence on those who want Ford to pursue technology for technology's sake while keeping Mulally's commitment to preserve Ford's leadership. Ford is not a fringe brand or a niche player; it is one of the world's biggest volume brands. Its customers should never serve as guinea pigs.
4. Reaffirm the new culture. One of Mulally's biggest achievements was eradicating the old fiefdoms and cliques that hobbled Ford in the past. Mulally did that by the force of his no-nonsense, results-oriented leadership style. Employees, suppliers, dealers and customers have rallied behind Ford as the company that survived without tax dollars.
Fields has been seasoned during his long tenure as president of the Americas under Mulally. He has toned down both his New Jersey-bred aggressive personality and the MBA-style jargon he learned at Rutgers and Harvard Business School. But he still lacks his boss's down-home warmth, charisma and directness. If Fields is indeed appointed as Mulally's successor, he needs to work harder at building bridges to Ford's employees, dealers, suppliers and customers. Working side by side with Mulally as COO could be the perfect chance to do just that.
5. Keep Jim Farley at Ford. In a recent interview, Fields said he had matured in his job by learning to work with those with drastically different temperaments. He cited global marketing chief Jim Farley, 50, as a prime example. There have been reports of tensions between them.
The hyperkinetic Farley has led Ford to the forefront of marketing in the digital age. Dealers believe fervently in him. Whatever their chemistry, Fields needs to do more than just keep Farley on the team; he must give the younger man free rein to continue innovating. Though Farley spent 17 years with Toyota and Lexus, he comes from a Ford family and bleeds Ford blue. And there's no marketing executive more acutely wired to the competitive landscape.