Change or die

Departments - Editor's Note

Robert Schoenberger

He said it would be different this time.

Mark Fields, then Ford’s newly minted president of the Americas, sat down with me at the company’s Louisville Assembly Plant in 2006 to talk about his Way Forward restructuring plan.

I was skeptical. The Way Forward sounded an awful lot like the company’s 2002 restructuring plan and countless ones before that: close plants, slash costs, wait for car buyers to rediscover Ford.

At Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler, the mantra from the mid-’90s through about 2010 had been “shrink to grow.” Every big initiative started with closing plants and was supposed to end with higher sales and profits. And while job losses mounted, sales improvements never arrived.

Eight years ago, Fields promised different results.

“This is not your typical cyclical downturn,” Fields said then. “This is an inflection point for the entire industry. We have to change or die. I expect everyone in the organization to understand that.”

Then, for the first time in decades, things actually changed.

Fields spent the first half of 2006 going from plant to plant, warning workers that job losses were coming, that their pensions could fail if the company went under, that Ford could not survive without massive changes. At the Louisville plant, a line worker gave him a knife and a cigar cutter because he knew Fields was going to be doing a lot of slicing.

That summer, Bill Ford Jr. resigned as the company’s chief executive, bringing in Alan Mulally from Boeing as his replacement. Mulally ran with Fields’ plan, adding key financing provisions.

The rest has become modern auto industry legend. GM and Chrysler collapsed in the 2008 recession. Ford avoided federal bailouts and thrived. Fields’ cost cutting and Mulally’s plan to borrow $25 billion before the market crash kept the company afloat.

On July 1, 2014, Mulally retired as Ford’s CEO, and Fields took over.

Mulally and Fields were always on the same page when it came to how to rescue the company, but I expect a significant change in tone from Dearborn. Mulally used an aw-shucks style of Midwestern straight-forwardness, often playing up his Kansas roots. Quick with a smile and praise for his team, he avoided criticism and spontaneity. In press conferences, he stayed on message, constantly repeating a handful of key turnaround phrases.

A New Jersey native, Fields is more confrontational. In that meeting in Louisville eight years ago, he criticized Toyota commercials that talked about how much that automaker had invested in the United States.

“They’re trying to say they’re like an American car company, and they’re not,” Fields said bluntly. He rarely pulls punches when talking about the competition.

He’s less blunt these days, but not much. In April, when an analyst asked if Ford was de-emphasizing sales of small cars because it no longer needs to sell as many fuel-efficient vehicles to stay compliant with federal standards, Fields responded sharply.

“Absolutely, not,” Fields said, adding that the company isn’t trying to game fuel economy standards. “We’re focused on delivering what customers want.”

Style differences aside, Fields’ leadership shouldn’t represent a major change at Ford. He’s been driving the turnaround there for nearly a decade.