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Ford Motor Co.’s newest CEO, Jim Hackett, may be better known for his efforts transforming the world’s largest office furniture manufacturer and his hiring of popular University of Michigan head football coach Jim Harbaugh than he is in the auto industry.

That’s about to change. Hackett, 62, takes over leadership of the No. 2 U.S. automaker as it works to emerge from being just a carmaker to being an auto and mobility services company. He joins Ford with shareholders frustrated over the price of Ford’s stock, which fell by about 40 percent during Mark Fields’ tenure as CEO.

Hackett, the former Steelcase Inc. CEO, for a year has chaired Ford’s subsidiary Ford Smart Mobility, which is building mobility services and investing in mobility related ventures for the automaker. Business leaders call Hackett an innovator who can make tough decisions. Some say Hackett is also likable, smart and a man of integrity.

“Because of the nature of innovation, things are changing so quickly,” Hackett said in an interview with The Detroit News. “I like big problems. This is a big problem to solve in terms of the future of the transportation system — what it’s going to be like.”

Hackett began his career at Grand Rapids-based Steelcase in 1986 and worked for the furniture giant for three decades, including 20 years as CEO before he retired in February 2014. He is credited for his innovation and for steering the company in an industry downturn and recession. Hackett also led the transformation of the office furniture company as it helped change how people work — shifting from a closed-cubicle culture to open office environments that foster collaboration and teamwork.

He also has been known for what’s described as a creative management approach to business. Steelcase in the mid-1990s invested in international consulting firm IDEO, and Hackett and IDEO CEO David Kelley created a unique business relationship to help design innovation into Steelcase.

The two even were connected by a live audio-video feed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so they could collaborate in real time between IDEO’s office in Palo Alto, California, and Steelcase’s headquarters in Michigan.

Kelley told TheStreet in a June 2016 piece that Hackett has a “penchant” for solving how much to spend on the core business vs. how much to invest in new ideas.

The two even were connected by a live audio-video feed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so they could collaborate in real time between IDEO’s office in Palo Alto, California, and Steelcase’s headquarters in Michigan.

Kelley told TheStreet in a June 2016 piece that Hackett has a “penchant” for solving how much to spend on the core business vs. how much to invest in new ideas.

Hackett is acknowledged by some furniture industry analysts and others for making tough decisions that at one point shed half of Steelcase’s Grand Rapids workforce. He eliminated 12,000 jobs including that of the best man at his wedding, according to a 2014 MLive story.

Hailing from Ohio, Hackett graduated in 1977 with a bachelor’s degree in general studies from UM, where he was a center on the football team under legendary coach Bo Schembechler — though Hackett has admitted he didn’t play much.

The Wolverine was hired by UM President Mark Schlissel in October 2014 as the school’s interim athletic director. Hackett stayed in the position through March 2016 and is well-known for hiring former San Francisco 49ers head coach Harbaugh as UM’s football coach.

Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. told The News that Hackett’s time as interim athletic director at Michigan demonstrated an “ability to lead in all kinds of circumstances.”

Andrea Fischer Newman, a regent at the university and senior vice president of government affairs for Delta Air Lines, said she was impressed by Hackett coming in as an interim, though he “immediately set about to make changes.”

Hackett joined Ford’s board of directors in 2013. He stepped down from Ford’s board in March 2016 when he was tapped to head Ford Smart Mobility.

Newman said she ran into Hackett last year at a football game and he told her how excited he was about his new position with Ford and the future.

“Jim is nothing if not about the future,” she said. “He sees things that other people don’t see and he looks ahead.”

Hackett also brings to the CEO position a resume of experience as a director for other companies. He currently sits on the board for Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. in Milwaukee, and on the board for the National Center for Arts & Technology.

He formerly was on the board for Fifth Third Bancorp in Cincinnati, retiring in 2016; was a trustee of the Steelcase Foundation; and was part of Business Leaders for Michigan. He is past president of the Institute of Design Board of Overseers at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

He has continued ties to his alma mater: He is a member of the Leadership Council that advises UM’s Life Sciences Institute and is on a committee advising the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

Hackett described his time at Steelcase as one transforming an old-line furniture supplier into a company that aimed to transform the way people work. Drawing a distinct parallel to Ford, he told The News that every part of the company’s core would contribute to what it could become – “but it had to be framed differently.”

mburden@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2319

Daniel Howes of The Detroit News contributed.

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