Barb Samardzich shipped off to Europe five years ago, just as the economy and Ford Motor Co.'s operations there were starting to spiral into the sort of crisis she had just helped the automaker weather in the U.S.
Now, with Ford of Europe finally profitable again, Samardzich has decided to step away from the business and try something different rather than take on a new challenge at Ford. She's retiring as Ford of Europe's COO on Oct. 1 and will be succeeded by Steven Armstrong, president of Ford South America.
Samardzich said she'll return home to the U.S. with her husband, who retired several years ago, but has no specific plans beyond working more with charity organizations.
"I decided I wanted to retire earlier rather than later and give back more to communities. I want to do other things in my life and contribute in other ways," Samardzich, 57, said in an interview from Cologne, Germany. "Maybe I want to go to a movie on a Wednesday night."
Her choice means Ford is losing one of its top female executives, a former nuclear engineer who in 26 years with the company managed development of the 2005 Mustang and helped launch the hugely successful line of EcoBoost engines. Samardzich said she advocated for the EcoBoost program over considerable skepticism inside the company that consumers would embrace smaller, turbocharged engines, especially in brawny pickups and SUVs. Today, 60 percent of F-150s are sold with an EcoBoost V-6, even with gasoline prices hovering around $2 a gallon.
"I was never someone who was "What's under the hood of that car?' but I was very good at vehicle evaluation," Samardzich, who was vice president of global powertrain engineering when Ford introduced EcoBoost, said last week. "EcoBoost engines had every attribute I was looking for in a vehicle. It did not matter to me how many cylinders there were, and I believed there were more people like me than not like me out there."
Armstrong, Ford's choice for the next deputy leader in Europe, is a U.K. native who has spent two-and-a-half years running Ford's South American region. He has had to grapple with economic turmoil in Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela so severe that Ford wrote off $800 million worth of investment there and said it expects 2016 results to be worse than last year's $832 million loss.
Upon landing in Europe, Armstrong, a former COO of Volvo Cars and Ford's Germany-based joint venture with Getrag Transmissions, will find a much healthier balance sheet. In the first quarter, Ford of Europe earned $434 million, already beating its $259 million profit for all of 2015.
Armstrong, 52, who started his career in 1987 with Jaguar, will be charged with most of the daily operations in Europe, including manufacturing, quality, product development, purchasing and vehicle safety. Among his achievements are leading a restructuring of Volvo's global purchasing operation and overseeing Ford's $1.3 billion sale of Volvo to Geely Automotive Holdings of China.
"There is no magic formula for success," Armstrong said at an SAE World Congress panel in 2005, when he was selected as an Automotive News Europe Eurostar for improving supplier relations. "Success requires establishing relationships with suppliers. And trust is a big element."
Armstrong, whose move to Europe is effective Sept. 1 to allow for a monthlong transition, will be replaced as president of Ford South America on Aug. 1 by Lyle Watters, 51. Watters is Ford of Europe's CFO and vice president for finance and strategic planning.
Ford CEO Mark Fields, in a statement, praised Samardzich's leadership and skill as "critical to the transformation of our Ford of Europe business into a vibrant and profitable organization." The 2015 profit was Ford's first in Europe since 2011.
She said that recovery should allow Armstrong, who will report to Ford of Europe President Jim Farley, to focus more on the emerging mobility trends that Fields has made a cornerstone of his tenure. Though Europe's financial contributions to Ford pale in comparison to the record, multibillion-dollar profits being generated in North America, she's confident the region is again on solid footing and will continue improving.
"We took the same kind of formula we used in North America and applied it here, and so far, so good," she said. "Hopefully we've got the machine running really well now."