Ford's Farley reshapes leadership team, focusing on commercial vehicles, big data

Jordyn Grzelewski
The Detroit News

Seven weeks after becoming Ford Motor Co.'s chief operating officer, Jim Farley is making good on a promise to shake up his leadership team — potentially telegraphing shifting priorities at the top of the Glass House.

Jim Farley

The moves, detailed Thursday to employees, signal Farley's evolving assessment of what Ford should leverage to bolster its position in a next-generation auto market buffeted by multiple forces: developing electrified vehicles alongside bread-and-butter traditional pickups and SUVs in the age of COVID-19 and the global economic headwinds it is creating.

Driving the changes, Farley told The Detroit News, are what he sees as Ford's key growth opportunities of connectivity, commercial vehicles and data analytics: "We need to move a lot faster. We need to really step up the connected-car capability in the company."

More, they're a bid to maximize the Dearborn automaker's profit potential across their lineups, to tap the deep reservoir of trust the Blue Oval has developed with generations of customers. Focusing on the confluence of commercial vehicles and the ability to deliver data for the benefit of customers, Farley said, is one of those opportunities.

Kumar Galhotra

Kumar Galhotra, currently head of Ford North America, will take on an expanded role as president of the Americas and the international markets group. The shift for Galhotra, 54, aims to better align the company's international markets and put him in charge of a new commercial vehicle business in the U.S. and Canada.

And Ted Cannis, 53, who led the Team Edison on autonomous and electric-vehicle development, will become general manager of commercial vehicles for the United States and Canada, a move that signals Farley's strategic belief in the untapped profit potential in vehicles used by small business tradespeople and delivery services.

Farley also is naming Lisa Drake, currently head of purchasing, the new chief operating officer of North America. Farley described Drake, 47, as someone with "industrial know-how" who is deeply familiar with electrification. She will remain in charge of purchasing. And retired Israeli Intelligence Corps officer Gil Gur Arie, 44, will serve as chief of global data insight and analytics.

Lisa Drake

Farley's tapping of Gur Arie is yet another reflection of Israel's growing influence on the technologies shaping both traditional and autonomous vehicles in the global auto industry. In June, Ford opened a research center in Tel Aviv. And in a country dubbed "Startup Nation" for its large number of tech start-ups, nearly 10% of those ventures are auto-focused.

The innovations coming from that expertise, often honed during tours in Israeli intelligence, are largely being exported to foreign countries and industries.The move also highlights a growing reality of Auto 2.0: data can be lucrative. Autonomous vehicles have the ability to extract massive amounts of data from their users and their surroundings, spawning partnerships between automakers, Silicon Valley powerhouses and even tech startups. 

"The real engine in our business is moving quickly from petrol and fossil fuels to data," Farley said. "Our commercial business is a powerhouse. And we have the opportunity to go from selling these powerhouse products, to building a whole digital business of services and data that these customers are ready for."

In practice, that might mean generating data that makes it easier for emergency medical workers or electricians and plumbers to do their jobs or service their work vehicles to avoid costly down time.

"If you're a police officer, or you're in one of our ambulances, the data is life or death. For us, that's an opportunity, but it requires professionals like (Gur Arie) ...  He knows how to use data and (artificial intelligence) for life and death situations."

And, Farley noted, the competition to deliver high-tech commercial vehicles is hotter than ever, with Ford competing against its traditional rivals, as well as companies such as Inc. and partner Rivian Automotive, which is developing an electric pickup and investing in self-driving vehicle technology.

Similar to how commercial vehicles are managed in Europe, Farley sees an opportunity to "treat commercial vehicles not as a collection of nameplates, but as a business."

Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst at Guidehouse Insights, saw Thursday's announcement as "a continuation of the themes (Farley's) been working on for some time now, to transform the company and move it into the future." Those themes include less of an emphasis on personal-use cars, and a more on a service-oriented business.

"He saw commercial vehicles as an important opportunity as Ford moves into being more of a quote-unquote mobility company, whether it's ride-hailing or goods delivery."

This goes hand-in-hand with data analytics because analytics are crucial to fleet operators: "All of this is a growing area where there are opportunities for new revenue streams automakers haven't had in the past."

Abuelsamid also pointed out that Drake's new job description includes overseeing product launches, an area where Ford has had problems in the past. "They have to get (new product) out the door to customers, without having a bunch of recalls and other issues."

Farley, 57, joined Ford in 2007 from Toyota Motor Corp. He most recently served as president of new business, technology and strategy, was named COO in February and took over the job March 1. In addition to overseeing global markets, Farley remains in charge of the company's push toward autonomous and electric vehicles.

He is widely considered to be a top contender to succeed CEO Jim Hackett. Farley's ascension to the second-in-command role consolidated under a single executive the traditional auto business — or, Auto 1.0 — with the company's tech-driven autonomous and electric vehicle ventures.

Farley also was given another task: improve the automaker's financial outlook. Upon his appointment, Hackett said he would be charged with nearly doubling global margins to 8%, The News reported. Farley's promotion followed a botched Explorer SUV launch, missed earnings expectations for 2019 and a lackluster 2020 forecast, even as pressure was growing to show results from Ford's ongoing $11 billion restructuring plan.

In other staff changes announced Thursday, Lyle Watters will take on an expanded role as president, South America and international markets group, with Mark Ovenden continuing as president of the international markets group.

Burt Jordan will become vice president of global purchasing operations. Stuart Taylor will become executive director of the newly formed Enterprise Connectivity. Alex Purdy, coming from John Deere, will join the company as director of business operations, digital experience and connectivity.

The changes are effective May 1.

Twitter: @JGrzelewski