DETROIT — A Harvard education. Global experience. Mentored by a charismatic predecessor. And a clean elevation to CEO for a company not exactly known for seamless transitions.
Mark Fields was supposed to be the poster child for a new Ford.
Only he wasn't.
And that reality, unleashed in the dead of the night last week, may have said more about the state of the industry than the fate of Mark Fields.
The reality that a leader who successfully managed the massive transformation of the F-150 pickup, repositioned a dying Lincoln brand, restored European profits, renegotiated labor agreements and started a movement to the ambiguous, amorphous world of mobility could be fired after producing record profits raised these painful questions: Is anyone safe? Is anyone pursuing the correct path? And what exactly does the correct path look like if you're not sure about the destination?
Mark Fields, the metaphor.
If you're looking for an indicator of the angst that is enveloping this industry — a market softening, companies caught cheating and question marks surrounding a traditional business model — look no further than Fields.
Or just listen to some of the 250 suppliers and purchasing bosses at a charity golf event in suburban Detroit who tried to comprehend the overnight headline, dropped like an anvil on the heads of every industry leader.
Weird. Strange. Odd. Sad. All synonyms for Fields' firing.
"What I don't understand," one executive wondered privately, "is the fact that Mark delivered results but was still a scapegoat. What does that mean for the rest of us?"
Just 35 months ago, Fields' promotion to president and CEO was characterized by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, associate dean of the Yale University School of Management, as a "classic textbook, done-right, CEO succession."
Fields had been put on the short list of future Ford chief executives as far back as 2008 and had already engineered a few turnarounds of his own. At age 39 in 2000, he became CEO of Mazda, in which Ford had a controlling stake at the time. There, he led a turnaround with several Ford executives who would later partner with him in reviving Ford's North American business.
So where did the wheels come off?
Perhaps in early 2016, after a secret deal with Google fell apart. Or when cooling auto sales and falling profits put even more pressure on that ever-declining stock price.
Some say Bill Ford and his board had a number of accumulated grievances with Fields. Maybe so. But it's clear that failing grades are being handed out on a much harder curve than before. That's what had the supplier executives spooked.
Did Fields make the wrong bets or not bet with enough certainty?
Did he underestimate Silicon Valley's cultural peculiarities or rely too much on Detroit's automaking tradition? Much of it is unknown — and unfortunate.
Fields' firing is a clear signal that it's not enough to run plants efficiently, invest in electrification, revamp a segment leader using advanced materials, pay factory workers hefty profit-sharing checks, increase dividends and sell lots of cars and trucks.
He was aware enough to know that the core business still fuels many of those investments in the future that show no positive results on today's balance sheet. But Fields ran out of time without knowing how fast the clock was ticking.
And if he wasn't fast enough, very few people can articulate exactly what the speed should be.