Fields’ run as Ford CEO ends amid need to 're-energize'

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Mark Fields’ tenure as Ford Motor Co.’s president and CEO ends just short of three years — a period marked by a failure to turn the company’s solid SUV and truck sales, along with investments in mobility, into growth.

Fields had been a rising star before getting the top spot in July 2014 at the age of 56. His work over 28 years produced a globe-trotting resume, work on multiple continents and a turnaround at Mazda of which Ford owned a large stake at the time.

But when he took charge in July 2014, Fields was stepping into the shoes of a man who had put his own definitive stamp on the Blue Oval. Alan Mulally became CEO late in 2006 and moved the company from $30 billion in losses during his first two years, to 19 consecutive quarters of growth and $42 billion in profits before departing in 2014.

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In addition, Ford named Fields CEO just four months after General Motors Co. chose Mary Barra for the same position, which guaranteed comparisons between the two for years to come. As the first female to lead a major global carmaker, Barra began her run in the spotlight and has remained there.

Barra’s star has continued to rise as GM made tough calls on restructuring and downsizing or eliminated its operations in Europe, India, Russia and other regions.

The month Fields took over, Ford shares closed at $17.41. The company’s stock prices have declined roughly 40 percent since then. In 2017, Ford’s first-quarter profits have dropped 35 percent and the company expects to make $9 billion this year, down $1.4 billion from 2016 when the industry saw record vehicle sales.

In 2009, then Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally,left, and Mark Fields, who served as executive vice president at the time, applaud the announcement the Ford Fusion was named 2010 Motor Trend Car Of The Year in front of Ford employees.

And all the while, Elon Musk, co-founder and CEO of Tesla Inc., has generated headlines and increased valuation for his company in the areas of electric and driverless cars — areas Ford has thrown itself into as well.

Fields was replaced Monday by Jim Hackett, the former Steelcase Inc. CEO and former interim athletic director for the University of Michigan. He’s the man responsible for hiring coach Jim Harbaugh. For Ford, Hackett has spent the last year chairing the automaker’s Ford Smart Mobility subsidiary.

During a press conference Monday, Ford Chairman Bill Ford Jr. noted areas of improvement necessary for the company. Those include a need to “speed up decision-making,” “invest our capital where we can create value” and “move decisively when we have underperforming areas.” He also spoke of Mulally’s performance — a comment that seemed to draw comparisons with Fields.

“Alan really captured the hearts and minds of our employees and made them feel that not only could we win, that we could win and have fun on the journey,” Ford said.

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Earlier this month, Ford shareholders aired a host of grievances with Fields’ performance. Those included the company’s heavy investments in new technologies like electrification, and autonomous vehicles.

Fields’ focus on those areas failed to generate the same kind of excitement on Wall Street as non-traditional companies like Tesla.

“Mark Fields took a long-term approach to making Ford a mobility company,” said Rebecca Lindland, an executive analyst at Kelley Blue Book, in a released statement. “However, investors — which include the super-voting shares the Ford family owns and just confirmed again at the annual meeting May 11 — were not so patient. Following Alan Mulally was never going to be easy, and Fields held his own, but the reality was he couldn’t rally the troops internally and pacify investors and the Ford family externally.”

In early April, Silicon Valley-based Tesla — which has built its reputation on the promise of electric and autonomous vehicles — surpassed Ford in stock value.

Tesla’s Musk indirectly tweaked Ford when he responded to calls from a group of his own investors to make changes aimed at fixing “dysfunctional group dynamics.”

“This investor group should buy Ford stock,” Musk wrote in an April 12 Tweet. “Their governance is amazing...”

One industry analyst called Fields’ removal “unnecessary.”

“Only the share price was going in the wrong direction,” wrote Christian Stadler, a professor at England’s University of Warwick and author of a book focusing on 100-year-old companies, in a statement.“This is obviously not a small point, but more of a reflection of unrealistic expectations. Fields was expected to turn a traditional car manufacturer into a mobility company matching the evaluation of such companies.

“Ford has no plausible approach towards mobility and e-vehicles yet and lags behind GM in that respect, but the crucial point is that changing the CEO is not likely to change this. Ford falls into the trap of betting too much on one individual.”