Ever since Thanksgiving weekend, there has been a kerfuffle over the succession plans at Ford Motor Co. Reporters are expending a lot of phone-time trying to sort out when CEO Alan Mulally is going to step down, and who is going to replace him.
Why now? It seems to have started with a Thanksgiving weekend column published by Automotive News that contained no new news. It was a perfectly reasonable column, penned no doubt for a slow, long, newsless holiday weekend, and referred to its own story that asked the same question from three years ago!
Then Fortune.com weighed in, referring to the Auto News story as its news peg. Then, on Dec. 6, the Wall Street Journal quoted anonymous sources saying that Ford has a search on for a new CEO, and that Mulally has said he will step down in two years, when he is 68.
Forgive me, but this sounds like an awful lot of breathless speculation during a lull in the auto industry before the coverage of new products at the North American International Auto Show begins. Ford officials deny that a search is on, and that they have started a formal search.
A 66-year-old CEO may retire in two years? We should all have such problems. In fact, it seems like a story chasing its own tail.
One of the reasons I can tell the story doesn't sound right is that former Ford head of "product creation" Phil Martens is mentioned in the Journal story as an "outsider" candidate. Martens held the product chief post under Bill Ford's tenure as CEO for less than two years, and proved to be one of the most divisive executives the company had seen in a long time. Martens is very much a part of what Ford was, and what Mulally reformed. The idea that chairman Bill Ford or the board would look seriously at Martens as a successor to Mulally defies logic and good sense. I think I have a better shot at the job.
The other candidates being bandied about are feasible. The list really begins with Ford President of the Americas Mark Fields. Fields was the architect of Mulally's turnaround plan that began in 2006. Fields had most of the ideas when Mulally arrived, but putting the plans into place --unifying global product development, killing off the European luxury brands, eliminating expensive and inefficient turf battles among Ford's global operating units and focusing on the Ford brand globally -- required the invaluable organizational discipline and leadership that Mulally brought to Dearborn.
Fields is a favorite of Bill Ford's. When Mulally arrived in September 2006, and Fields was among those who thought his star had fallen, Bill Ford told him, "Alan will make you a better CEO than I ever could." That was a great moment for Bill Ford, who has proven to be an exceptional chairman even if he wasn't cut out to be CEO. Ford, despite its languishing share price, is on a good roll. Bill Ford will lead an orderly transition when the time is right.
The other inside candidate, who would also provide orderly transition, is Joe Hinrichs, who runs Asia-Pacific for Ford. Hinrichs looks like a future CEO to me. But he could also simply be part of what Bill Ford wants -- a deep bench.
The one outsider candidate mentioned in the Journal that packs some feasibility is Hyundai of America chief John Krafcik, a former Ford engineering executive. Krafcik should be on any industrial company's short-list for CEO, and, according to two headhunters I have spoken to in recent weeks, he is. There is a thought that the Koreans don't pay Krafcik enough, or that his rising star makes Korean management uncomfortable. For Krafcik, who has shined as head of Hyundai in the U.S. and been critical to the quality of the products coming from the Korean automaker, it should prove rewarding to be on so many short lists.
The idea that Ford would go outside, though, for its new CEO when the time comes seems highly unlikely. But when it comes to succession planning, a board's fiduciary duty dictates that outsiders be given a look, even if it is just to check the boxes.
Mullaly will, indeed, have to retire eventually. The story would seem hot if it was six months away. But two years away? What's the hurry to even talk about it now other than to get through a pre-holiday lull in the auto biz.
Wall Street, which has not been in love with Ford's shares for about a year now, is nevertheless perfectly comfortable with either Fields or Hinrichs as a successor, with a preference for Fields. Bill Ford thinks highly of both men, who have learned, as he predicted in 2006, an awful lot about being CEO of Ford Motor Co. from Mulally. But as Mulally is healthier and fitter than most men twenty years younger, and Fields is 50 and Hinrichs 45, there doesn't seem to be a rush to name either one.
Grand Blvd. is a weekly column about cars from David Kiley. For more of his writing, and everything about cars, head over to AOL Autos.
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