LOS ANGELES -- When Jim Farley started his first tour of duty in Europe in 1997, he had a lot to learn.
Toyota had put Farley in charge of advance product planning for the region, but he didn't have a clue about Europe's dominant subcompact car segment.
"When I landed in Brussels, the company was completely importing Japanese models and they did not have one exclusive product built just for Europe," recalls Farley, who will head Ford Motor Co.'s European operations effective Jan. 1.
"They said, 'We want to be in the B segment,'" he said, using the European term for subcompacts. "I didn't even know what the B segment was."
So Farley set out to get his education: He headed straight for supermarket parking lots. He took thousands of pictures, documenting virtually every model on sale in all the major markets. He used a tape measure to determine whether a Toyota Land Cruiser SUV would fit into parking spaces.
"I got my Ph.D. in small cars walking through those parking lots. I still have all those pictures, boxes and boxes of pictures," Farley, 52, said in an interview at the auto show here. "I learned about homologation and the tax breaks for different engine displacements. I learned the hard way, and we built that product plan from the bottom up."
It's the same kind of approach he will take to Europe for his second tour of duty there. Farley will be president of Ford of Europe, Middle East and Africa in Cologne, Germany.
He and Stephen Odell are swapping jobs. Odell will move to Ford headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., to replace Farley as executive vice president of global marketing, sales and service. Farley, who came to Ford from Toyota in 2007, reflected on his seven years heading marketing and his thoughts on his new job.
Asked how he feels about the transition from running marketing to heading a regional business unit, Farley says: "That's the million-dollar question. I'm just thrilled."
Farley points out that he ran Ford's Canada, Mexico and South America operations for about 18 months in 2009-10, reporting to Mark Fields, then president of the Americas and now CEO, while also handling global marketing.
At the same time, Farley realizes that leading Ford of Europe will be tough. Ford and other carmakers have struggled as European economies have remained mired in a downturn. In a Sept. 29 presentation to investors, Odell issued a gloomier than expected outlook for Europe, saying he expected Ford's operations to lose $1.2 billion there in 2014 and $250 million next year.
Farley says he is looking forward to working with Ford of Europe executives such as COO Barb Samardzich and product development chief Joe Bakaj.
"I consider it a privilege to work with them and build a sustainable operation. It will take very different skills. But I will rely on the team. It's a big transition, but one I'm not unfamiliar with, and I'm excited about that."