By Keith Naughton, Crain News Service
DETROIT (April 23, 2014) — When Mark Fields took charge of Ford Motor Co.’s Americas operations nine years ago, it was a major repair job as the unit descended into record losses and almost dragged the company into bankruptcy.
Today, Ford’s North American operations are the envy of the industry, earning a record operating profit of $8.78 billion last year and profit margins above 10 percent in an industry where 5 percent is respectable.
Now that Mr. Fields is poised to succeed Alan Mulally as the company’s CEO, he’s taking charge of an auto maker in its prime. Ford earned $42.3 billion in the last five years after losing $30.1 billion from 2006 to 2008.
Surging sales of Escape SUVs, F-Series pickups and Fusion sedans helped drive Ford’s U.S. sales up 11 percent last year. In China, the world’s largest car market, Ford now outsells Toyota Motor Corp.
Mr. Fields’ greatest challenge is following Mr. Mulally.
“(Mr.) Mulally is going to be known as one of the great leaders of the American automobile industry,” said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, associate dean of the Yale University School of Management. “He lifted spirits during a time of distress. There are very few turnaround types like him.”
Mr. Fields has engineered a few turnarounds of his own in his 25 years at Ford. At age 39 in 2000, Mr. Fields became CEO of Mazda Motor Corp., in which Ford had a controlling stake at the time. He led a turnaround at Mazda with several Ford executives with whom he later worked closely to revive Ford’s North American business.
Along the way, he’s also transformed his image as a mullet-sporting Jersey boy to a legitimate leader with gravitas.
“He’s always had a quick wit and charm and a lot of energy, but he’s been so tempered by the ups and downs,” said Mr. Sonnenfeld, who taught Mr. Fields as a graduate student at Harvard Business School. “Going through that period and living with the consequences gave him a certain humility.”
Now he’s being handed the keys to the company. Ford will soon announce Mr. Fields’ promotion to CEO and reveal the timing of Mr. Mulally’s departure, which will happen this year, said two people familiar with the matter.
Mr. Mulally, who has said he would remain CEO through this year, will leave the company for another substantial role, said the people, who asked not to be identified disclosing internal plans. The moves may be announced as early as May 1, they said.
“Ford is undeniably in a very good place,” said Karl Brauer, senior analyst with auto researcher Kelley Blue Book. “Mr. Fields didn’t always appear quite so confident and assured, but he’s matured in the last five years and become an extremely good representative for Ford.”
These days, Mr. Fields’ fit, well-groomed appearance—for which he was once mocked—actually works in his favor as the company goes after the elusive Generation Y, the youth cohort that’s almost as large as the 75 million-strong Baby Boomers.
“He’s 53 and he could probably pass for 38,” Mr. Brauer said. “That’s going to help him appeal to younger people. It’s going to give the company a more young and vibrant image because he’s the head of it.”
Working beside Mr. Mulally as his COO for the last 17 months also prepared Mr. Fields to take the wheel, analysts said.
After Mr. Mulally, 68, considered bolting from Ford to become Microsoft Corp.’s CEO last year, investors became eager for Ford to make the transition, said Michael Levine, a fund manager at Oppenheimer Funds Inc. in New York. Mr. Mulally pulled out of the Microsoft race in January and said he would stay at Ford through the end of 2014.
“It has become a little bit of a distraction,” Mr. Levine said of Ford’s CEO succession. “Obviously, Mulally was going to retire shortly, so clarity is good and Fields seems like a very capable successor.”
Mr. Fields won early praise from Mr. Mulally in 2006 for going against Ford’s culture of hiding bad news by becoming the first executive to admit a problem to the new boss.
In the Thursday meeting, top executives are required to report on their initiatives using a green, yellow or red code to indicate progress, caution or a problem. Mr. Fields was the first to put up a red light because a balky tailgate latch had halted production of the Edge SUV in late 2006.
Mr. Mulally, frustrated no one had been reporting problems even though Ford was losing $17 billion in its automotive operations that year, began applauding.
“Great visibility, Mark,” Mr. Mulally recalled saying in a 2010 interview. “Is there anything we can do to help you?”
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Mr. Fields grew up in Paramus, N.J., and earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Rutgers University and an MBA from Harvard.
He worked in sales for International Business Machines Corp. before joining Ford in 1989. Mr. Fields has shown flashes of being a street fighter. During a Ford executive meeting in 2006, Mr. Fields almost came to blows with then-CFO Don Leclair.
The CFO was insisting on budget cuts to Mr. Fields’s “Bold Moves” ad campaign, according to “American Icon,” a 2012 book on Ford’s turnaround by Bryce Hoffman. “When you run the f---ing business, you can do it,” shouted Mr. Fields, who leapt across the table and had to be restrained by Bill Ford.
Mr. Fields doesn’t deny the incident and says he always felt “passionate” about the business when asked about what happened. Before he began overseeing the Americas in 2005, Mr. Fields gathered extensive experience overseas.
He was executive vice president of Ford of Europe and also ran the auto maker’s European luxury brands—Jaguar, Land Rover, Aston Martin and Volvo—which Mr. Mulally later sold to raise money to save the company.
These days, the only question is about the size of Ford’s earnings. The auto maker has said its pretax profits will slip this year as it rolls out a record number of new models, including an aluminum-bodied F-150 pickup, its top seller, and a new Mustang sports car.
Ford is betting the new models will pay off with more revenue and profit in 2015.
“2014 could be a little choppy, but 2015 will be a great year,” said Mr. Levine, the Oppenheimer Fund manager. “They’re making the right moves for the long term. We’re very excited about the upside in the stock over the next year or two.”
And now it will be Mr. Fields’ job to deliver on that promise.
“Talk about putting in your time and being patient,” Mr. Brauer said. “Mark has been at the company a long time and served a lot of different roles. And he’s always done a consistently good job.”
This report appeared on autonews.com, the website of Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business.