August 22, 2007 at 1:00 am

Fields cut his teeth in South America

DEARBORN -- As president of Ford Motor Co.'s Americas division, Mark Fields oversees one of the company's most profitable divisions -- South America -- even as he struggles to return its biggest money loser -- North America -- to profitability.

The irony is not lost on Fields, whose first big leadership challenge came in 1997 when he was tapped to lead a turnaround of Ford's faltering Argentine operations. He said it taught him to think on his feet.

"Things can change on a dime down there," Fields said, recalling the time when he learned that Ford had cut off all funding for emerging markets while he was on a plane to Thailand.

Maybe that is why so many of the industry's leaders cut their teeth in South America, including General Motors Corp. CEO Rick Wagoner and Daimler AG chief Dieter Zetsche.

Fields said the region offers young executives a chance to manage every aspect of the business, from sales and marketing to design and production.

"You really get an understanding of how the business works and how the business makes money," Fields said. "You learn that, when you go into positions of leadership, you cannot divorce yourself from the details of the operation."

Fields said those lessons are more important than ever, now that he is overseeing Ford's operations in both North and South America.

While he spends most of his time focused on the company's North American turnaround effort, he still has to help guide the company's strategy in South America. To accomplish that, he holds monthly teleconferences with the leaders of the different national divisions and travels to the continent at least twice a year to inspect Ford's operations on the ground.

"They are an important part of our operations," Fields said, "particularly with the profits they're generating."