By Keith Crain, Crain News Service
DETROIT (May 8, 2014) — Alan Mulally had just gotten his job as Ford Motor Co.’s top executive, and the Ford folks brought him around to Automotive News, a publication he probably had never heard of or seen.
I knew he didn’t know anything about the car business yet, but I wanted to hear his style and learn something, so we started talking about airplanes. This was a guy who was used to selling airplanes to kings and presidents of countries for hundreds of millions of dollars.
It didn’t take me long to realize that this might be the world’s best salesman. A simple guy from the Midwest who could sell hundred-million dollar airplanes. I liked him immediately.
He saved Ford—a legacy that he earned along with quite a bit of compensation. He was worth every nickel and then some.
Most important, he wove his magic with the employees at Ford. Infighting was gone; everyone worked together.
It was fun watching him in front of that congressional subcommittee in late 2008. Everyone was fawning and hemming and hawing in front of the panel. All of them were willing to work for a dollar. Except Mr. Mulally, who had mortgaged Ford to the hilt and didn’t want a government bailout. He said his salary was just fine, thank you, and he went home to keep on saving Ford. It might have been his finest hour.
Folks loved his style and his simple homespun personality. Some might have thought it was an act. It didn’t matter. Almost everyone really liked him and worked hard for him.
Ford kept getting better and better. He built a legacy and a bit of a legend.
Mr. Mulally is too young at 68 to retire. There is too much energy left. He’ll do something more, maybe closer to home.
And the man who has been apprenticing for 25 years will take the helm. Mark Fields has done everything and worked everywhere. He’s ready.
Don’t expect him to be another Alan Mulally. There is only one of those. And there is only one Mark Fields.
They are about as different as can be. And that’s a good thing. Mr. Fields knows his stuff. He knows Ford, and he’ll do a good job.
He’ll do the job differently. Different is good.
Alan is quite a guy. Maybe the best salesman since Lee Iacocca. Except Mr. Iacocca never sold hundred-million dollar planes.
Mark is quite a guy. Maybe the best-trained executive at Ford that ever became CEO.
Mark is ready to start. Alan is ready to turn over the keys.
It’s a smooth transition.
Each in his own way.
This opinion column appeared on the website of Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business. Keith Crain is editor-in-chief of Automotive News and chairman of Crain Communications Inc., TB's parent company. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.