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Changes atop Ford signal a desire to up competitive metabolism

May 29, 2017

Nine years after Ford Motor recruited an outsider to save it from itself, the automaker’s doing it again.

This time, the savior is more familiar. It’s Jim Hackett. He's the guy who wooed Jim Harbaugh back to the Michigan sidelines once prowled by the legendary Bo Schembechler. Harbaugh says Hackett’s all about teamwork, about making the team better, and the football coach says the new Ford CEO is, quote, “tougher than a two-dollar steak.”

Credit Daniel Howes / Detroit News

He’ll need to be. The last outsider to lead Ford was Alan Mulally. He arrived in 2006 with a mandate to rescue the industrial enterprise. He did just that, creating an earnings machine able to deliver record profits and some fat years in Dearborn, and becoming the industry’s biggest superstar. But the industry is changing with lightning speed. That’s presenting traditional automakers with a whole new set of competitive challenges they only partially understand.

So instead of sticking with Mark Fields, a Ford veteran steeped in the Blue Oval, Executive Chairman Bill Ford and the directors dumped the CEO after less than three years. And they went outside again in hope of recreating the Mulally mojo.

That’s a tough act to follow. Hackett’s the longtime Steelcase CEO and interim athletic director at the University of Michigan. He hired Harbaugh after running the old-line furniture maker for 20 years. He steered Steelcase from a traditional manufacturer into an innovator that aims to transform the way companies and people work.

Funny enough, that’s roughly what Ford wants from the 62-year-old who once played center for Schembechler. Strengthen the team. Make decisions. Move quicker. And rally the company that’s been awash in record results, fat profit-sharing checks and seven years of steadily expanding sales in the bellwether United States.

Good luck with that, Jim. The facts of rapid change in the industry may be on Hackett’s side, and so is the competitive threat coming from Silicon Valley. But human nature around Dearborn isn’t.

Ford is legendary for its ability to stiffen its collective spine in bad times and fight back — with revolutionary products like the Taurus in the ‘80s, the Explorer in the ‘90s and Mulally’s turnaround in the 2000s.

But making tough calls in the fat and happy days? Not so much.

If Hackett can corral the sprawling Ford team of 202,000 worldwide, move it in the right direction and focus it on the best ideas, he’ll have a far better chance of steering the Blue Oval where it needs to go.

Emphasis on the word if. Rallying a team that size behind a cause still poorly defined would be hard in difficult times, like the meltdown of 2008. Rallying them after two record years of profitability — and the prospect of $9 billion more this year — will be even harder.

Of all the challenges facing Hackett none will be more important — and more problematic — than conveying the urgency of Ford’s challenges with clarity.

And making folks believe it. 

Daniel Howes is a columnist with The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.