Mark Fields, currently Ford Motor Co.’s president of the Americas, may take a giant step closer to becoming the automaker’s next chief executive this week.
Ford's board of directors is expected to name the 51-year-old Fields to the new post of chief operating officer, the final step before the New Jersey-born executive could replace highly regarded CEO Alan Mulally.
Such a move has been widely anticipated, though the timing has been uncertain. Ford normally does not comment on the timing of board meetings nor the actions on the agenda, though a promotion at such a senior level would have to immediately be reported to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Rumors about Ford's succession plans have been swirling for months and have only escalated in recent days. On Monday, during an appearance at the automaker's assembly plant in Flat Rock, Mich., Fields was greeted with a string of questions about his future role.
"I am very focused on the job that I am doing now," was his response.
Mulally, a former top Boeing executive, has been widely credited with turning things around for Ford, which just prior to the recent recession, mortgaged all its key assets, including plants and the “Blue Oval” logo, to raise enough cash to avoid a collapse. The strategy worked, with Ford being the only one of the Big Three Detroit automakers to avoid a bankruptcy and federal bailout.
At 67, the boyish-looking Mulally remains fit and active and has insisted he will stay on as long as the Ford board wants him to — and as long, he has said, as he is “having fun.” But he has also indicated the succession process is under way and, six years into his term, insiders say it’s time for the company to take the next step.
A report by the Bloomberg news service indicates that while the change is unlikely until the end of next year, the succession plan will move ahead with Fields’ promotion. By creating the new COO position, it gives Mulally, Ford non-executive Chairman Bill Ford, Jr. and the board one last chance to judge Fields’ mettle and weigh the potential of several other candidates.
Among those other candidates are:
- Joe Hinrichs, currently the head of Ford’s fast-growing Asian operations. Popular within Ford, he is nonetheless considered a little too young, at age, 45, to take on the CEO role;
- Stephen Odell, the president of Ford of Europe. But the British-born exec is in the midst of the struggle to turn around Ford’s money-losing European operations;
- Jim Farley, the global head of marketing, is considered a long shot, and though he could be a critical lieutenant to the next CEO, Farley is not a serious contender.
There is also the option, Mulally and others have suggested, that Ford could turn to an outsider — as the maker did in 2006 when it recruited Mulally himself from Boeing.
Outsiders have traditionally fared poorly in top automotive jobs, however, notes analyst Joe Phillippi, of AutoTrends Consulting. “It’s a very different business,” he cautioned, from just about anything else in the industrial world.
Bob Nardelli, the short-time chairman of Chrysler, left ignominiously when the maker plunged into bankruptcy in 2009. Seen early on as a top prospect to become CEO, one-time General Motors President Ron Zarrella — recruited from the consumer goods world — eventually left in failure. GM’s current Chairman and Chief Executive Dan Akerson has been controversial in his post and has yet to prove to critics — or investors — that he is up to the job.
Fields, meanwhile, has worked his way up through a series of assignments at Ford since joining the company in 1989. Among his more challenging assignments, he served as Ford’s designated CEO at Mazda Motor Co. in 1998, while the U.S. automaker oversaw the Japanese maker’s revival. At just 38, he was not only one of the few foreigners but also the youngest person ever to run a major Japanese company.
In his latest post, Fields has been in charge of Ford’s critical North, Central and South American operations. They have posted a substantial turnaround under his control. Home market earnings are now helping offset the anticipated loss of $1 billion analysts expect from Ford of Europe this year.
“Mark is a bright and talented man who has the smarts to take on the CEO job,” said a high-ranking industry executive and former confidant to Ford Chairman Bill Ford. “The challenges he faces will be twofold: First, he has to make sure he can continue the OneFord strategy Mulally put in place, and two, he has to keep everyone onboard and willing to support him.”
Ford has traditionally been a highly politicized organization, company officials admit. Getting everyone to focus on the company’s prosperity, rather than the success of individual careers, was one of Mulally’s first challenges. And, to many, it has been one of his biggest successes, helping create a team that has matched in lock step behind his turnaround strategy.