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New Ford CEO's Challenge No. 1: Expanding in China

/ Source: The Detroit Bureau
Ford Motor Chief Operating Officer Mark Fields addresses the media after Ford announced that he will replace Alan Mulally as president and CEO on July .Reuters

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Ford Motor Co.’s new chief executive understands challenge.

Shortly after announcing that chief operating officer Mark Fields will take over when he retires July 1, CEO Alan Mulally was quick to share credit with the 53-year-old Fields for helping to save the second-biggest domestic automaker.

“Mark was a key member of the team when I arrived and helped us implement the One Ford plan,” Mulally, 68, said in an interview Thursday, that has helped the maker deliver a string of profits and substantial growth in markets stretching from Boston to Berlin and Beijing.

Fields was, in fact, one of the architects of the risky but critical plan that mortgaged key Ford assets – including its familiar Blue Oval logo – to generate the cash reserves needed to work through the Great Recession. Ford was the only Detroit maker not to declare bankruptcy in 2009. Fields also won his mentor’s loyalty by being the first senior Ford leader to embrace a policy that put company needs before personal politics, a traditional problem for the maker.

Coming into Ford eight years ago from Boeing, Mulally says he considered a “smooth and orderly” management transition to be one of his key goals, along with a plan to switch the maker from what was essentially a conglomeration of semi-autonomous regional fiefdoms into a truly global manufacturer.

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 Visitors take photos of a Lincoln MKX SUV concept car at Auto China 2014 in Beijing April 20, 2014. Ford's premium brand Lincoln may be late to China's luxury boom, but its top executives say the upscale car market still has plenty of steam left for growth to make its debut later this year worthwhile. REUTERS

For his part, Fields said in an interview with The Detroit Bureau, he remains committed both to his current management team and to following the One Ford strategy. That consistency is critical to keep the company focused, but he also stressed that it is a “very dynamic” plan designed to respond to the various challenges Ford might face. Among those challenges:

  • Expanding Ford’s presence in China, the world’s largest car market, where it was a late-comer but has been gaining on key rivals like General Motors and Volkswagen;
  • The maker is just launching its Lincoln brand at the Beijing Motor Show and, ironically, hopes China could help salvage the struggling U.S. luxury icon;
  • Ford needs to stop hemorrhaging cash in Europe, though its turnaround plan – involving several plant closings – appears to be gaining traction more quickly than anticipated;
  • It needs to resolve recent quality problems, many of them involving its high-tech infotainment system, Sync. It just broke with developer Microsoft, and could have an all-new system to debut soon.

One of the biggest challenges will play out all this year as Ford stages its broadest product roll-out in a half-century, debuting 23 products worldwide, including 16 in the U.S. It wants to avoid the problems it faced launching other critical offerings, such as the Escape SUV, two years ago.

Upbeat over the prospects, Fields says the One Ford plan should be able to cope with these challenges. “We’re just starting to see the benefits and we’re going to stay with it,” he stressed, “because it’s just going to get better.”

More from The Detroit Bureau:

Can China Save an American Icon? Struggling Luxury Maker Lincoln Turns East

This Little Nissan Can Clean Itself

Toyota Abandoning California for New Texas HQ

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