Ford CEO Jim Hackett: 'We're turning the corner'

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News
Jim Hackett

Ford Motor Co. CEO Jim Hackett reaffirmed Tuesday that he's pushing the 115-year-old automaker to "turn the corner" in 2019.

Hackett is approaching two years as CEO at Ford. He's said repeatedly since January that 2019 will be a "year of execution" at the automaker after disappointing financial results in 2018. Speaking to the Detroit Economic Club Tuesday, Hackett said he's getting used to constant chiding from investors and the media, for all his talk of the future. 

But he said he's made clear to those in the company that he won't accept another year of poor earnings results. It's personal, Hackett said.

"If they thought that we rationalize a year like that as OK, you need to know that I'm telling myself I can't have another year like that," Hackett said. "Not that I'm worried about getting fired. Who wants to spend their time just being average?

"We're turning the corner," he said. "Trust me on this."

Hackett and his executive team are executing moves across the company they hope will make Ford a long-term competitor in a rapidly changing and increasingly volatile industry. Executives describe a new cohesiveness at the top.

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Hackett was appointed CEO to bring change to the automaker and jump-start a stock price that was stuck in neutral. The stock price is still down about $2 from the $11.11 per share it was when he was appointed.

But Hackett told The Detroit News recently  that investors would come around once he got the business in order. And in fact, Ford shares have outperformed General Motors Co., Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Tesla Inc. since the first of the year.

Author John Bacon asked Hackett a range of questions Tuesday, covering his time as Steelcase Inc. CEO and interim athletic director at the University of Michigan. The two also talked about Hackett's time playing football for Bo Schembechler. Hackett said his time as the third-string center — lining up across from the first-string nose guard — for years has helped him understand every part of Ford. He wasn't a starter, but Schembechler made sure Hackett knew he was valuable to the team.

"I'm the same guy that sat the bench that's running Ford Motor Company," Hackett said. "And maybe in a folded way, it's helped me understand everybody's job at Ford, because I understand what it's like to be in that level of the organization." 

The CEO said one of his goals for Ford is to make sure the business is ready for the next recession. He and his top executives have moved to trim production times and spending as part of an effort to make the automaker more competitive. 

Meantime, Hackett said he tries to spend at least 20% of his time every week working on some of those futuristic problems Ford faces, such as autonomous vehicles. Hackett said autonomous vehicles have been over-hyped. Companies over-estimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles, Hackett said. Ford plans to launch its autonomous vehicle program in 2021 in a "narrow" application. 

"We'll be ready," Hackett said. "Ford's attitude in this is don't watch my lips, watch my feet. The work we're doing with our feet is really extraordinary."

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau