Image: Ford, Mulally
Rebecca Cook  /  Reuters
Ford Motor Co.'s new chief executive Alan Mulally, left, and Chairman Bill Ford answer questions at a news conference Tuesday at the company's headquarters in Dearborn, Mich.
By contributor
updated 9/6/2006 1:09:40 PM ET 2006-09-06T17:09:40

After nearly 40 years of climbing, Alan Mulally has finally reached the summit, even if he had to switch mountains to get there.

Mulally, 61, nearly reached the peak at The Boeing Co. last year but was passed over for the chief executive's job by outsider Jim McNerney. At the time, the charismatic president of Boeing’s commercial airplane operations told employees he would not leave the company, and he praised the new boss. But it was no secret that Mulally wanted the view from the top.

With Ford Motor Co.’s surprise announcement Tuesday naming him CEO, Mulally has that view. But it comes with a daunting challenge: making the beleaguered automaker fly. That task — and the freedom to complete it his way — is what persuaded Mulally to leave Boeing, industry insiders say.

“This isn’t about ego, it’s about impact,’’ said Charles Bofferding, executive director of Boeing’s second-largest union, the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace. “Alan’s a Boeing guy, but it had to be irresistible to have a significant challenge and a completely free hand to work it your way. That’s what drives him.”

Journey won't be easy
The journey won’t be easy for Mulally. Ford, which posted a $1.44 billion loss in the first half of the year, is being pressured to reinvent itself by stepping up cost-cutting, revamping its product development plans and possibly jettisoning some of its brands.

“If anybody is going to turn the company around, it will be Alan Mulally,’’ said University of Kansas professor Jan Roscam, who encouraged his former graduate student to go to work for Boeing nearly 40 years ago. “He’s a born leader and an extremely fast learner. This will be a completely different way of marketing and designing products, but Alan has the mental flexibility to do it well. Heaven knows Ford needs all the help they can get.”

Mulally’s former job as chief of Boeing’s commercial division is one Roscam predicted he would get when he graduated from the University of Kansas with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aeronautical and astronautical engineering. Mulally also earned a master’s degree in management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as as an Alfred P. Sloan fellow in 1982.

“I told him I expected him to be Boeing’s president in 25 years,’’ Roscam recalled.  Mulally didn’t let his mentor down.

From the time Mulally joined Boeing as an aeronautical engineer in 1969, he was an ambitious rising star within the company. He worked on practically every commercial aircraft model Boeing has built, including leading production of the 777 twin-engine jetliner. In the early 1990s, Mulally was at the forefront of a movement to topple Boeing’s stodgy corporate structure. Instead of the old “take it or leave it” attitude, Mulally sent a new message to airline customers: “Tell us what you want and work together with us to build it.”

He was promoted to president of the commercial division in 1998, when some said it was on its deathbed — posting a $1.6 billion loss because of production problems. In 2001, he was given the additional title of chief executive officer of the commercial group. Today, he is credited with saving the company’s commercial business, which generated orders and sales of nearly $23 billion in 2005.

Brilliant, charismatic, competitive
Mulally has been described as a brilliant, charismatic and competitive man with seemingly eternal youth. He’s passionate about life and work, and approaches both with zeal — whether he’s working 13-hour days, spending time with his five children, shooting a par 72 with customers or enjoying a date with his wife of 37 years, Nicki.

Born in Oakland, Mulally was raised in a tight-knit family in the small town of Lawrence, Kan. When Mulally was a teenager, he dreamed of becoming an astronaut, inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s call to send Americans to the moon. He learned to fly but was rejected for the astronaut program when it was discovered he was colorblind.

Many of his friends, colleagues and employees expressed disappointment and shock over his sudden departure from Boeing.

“I’m stunned by this,’’ said Jan Sayers, a high school teacher in the Seattle suburb of Mercer Island who is a family friend. She has taught all of Mulally’s children, the youngest of whom recently graduated from high school. “This is a huge coup for Ford and a tremendous loss for Boeing and the community.”

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