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Ford taps Jon Huntsman, former China, Russia diplomat, to rejoin board

Jordyn Grzelewski
The Detroit News

Jon Huntsman Jr., the former Utah governor, businessman, diplomat and onetime presidential candidate, will return to Ford Motor Co.'s board of directors as the Blue Oval looks to tap into his trade expertise and global experience — especially in China. 

The Dearborn automaker on Thursday announced the return of Huntsman, who departed from the board in 2017 to serve as ambassador to Russia under President Donald Trump. He originally was elected to the board in 2012 after serving as ambassador to China.

"I'm thrilled that we will again benefit from Jon's extraordinary experience, insights and relationships," Executive Chairman Bill Ford said in a statement. "His career and accomplishments in global policy and trade are incomparable." 

Jon M. Huntsman, Jr., Member, Board of Directors, Ford Motor Company

Huntsman, a University of Pennsylvania graduate, previously served as an executive at Huntsman Corp., the global chemicals company founded by his father. A Republican, the junior Huntsman served as governor of Utah from 2005 to 2009. He ran in the state's gubernatorial race this year, but lost in the primary.

His career in public service and politics began as a White House staff assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He went on to serve as ambassador to Singapore under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton; Deputy U.S. Trade Representative in President George W. Bush's administration; ambassador to China during President Barack Obama's tenure; and most recently as the ambassador to Russia under President Donald Trump, a post which he left in 2019.

Automotive industry experts say Huntsman brings a wealth of knowledge on trade, international policy and politics to the board, all of which could be assets for the automaker. He's described as someone with deep knowledge of, and connections in, the regions where he's served; someone who has real-world experience brokering deals and a truly global perspective.

"Jon Huntsman is exactly the right guy at the right time for Ford," said Michael Dunne, CEO of Hong Kong-based advisory firm ZoZo Go LLC. "He knows China, he knows business and he is highly respected on both sides of the Pacific."

Huntsman speaks fluent Mandarin, "which immediately earns him an elite status in Asia," added Dunne. "As Ford constructs a comeback in China, Huntsman can play a pivotal role, especially on the crucial company-to-government relations front."

In his various trade roles, Huntsman "negotiated or brokered dozens of investment agreements in Asia Pacific and Africa," according to a company release.

"The global experience is very important," said David Cole, chairman emeritus for the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor. "I don't care where you've served in the world. What you get is an understanding of what's going on in the globe," which Cole sees as an asset to Ford's board.

Cole sees other parts of Huntsman's resume as beneficial to the automaker, as well: "Jon was a political guy but he was also a business guy. When you look at the reality today, the connection between politics and business is extremely significant. Somebody who understands both sides would be a very valuable addition to a board."

In September, Huntsman returned to the board of oil company Chevron Corp. His appointment to the board comes as the Blue Oval pushes forward with its ongoing effort to expand its presence in China, the world's largest auto market. Ford has sought to design products that appeal to Chinese customers, as it aims to turn around a multi-year trend of sliding sales.

"Somebody like Huntsman — who has been around the block, and has the political side as well as the business side and has the familiarity of what’s going on with China —I would say that’s an extremely powerful addition to a board," Cole said.

Ford China on Thursday reported a 25.4% sales increase over the third quarter of 2019, representing the largest quarterly growth since the fourth quarter of 2016. In all, Ford and its joint ventures, Changan Ford, JMC and Ford Lio-Ho, sold 164,352 vehicles in Greater China. 

Meanwhile, Ford of Europe on Thursday reported third-quarter sales slipped 4.2% to 299,632 vehicles, compared to the same time a year ago. Passenger vehicle sales in Europe were down 7.5%, but commercial vehicle sales were up 3.8%, to 94,565. 

The automaker retained its status as the No. 1 commercial vehicle brand in Europe, and recorded its best quarter for commercial vehicle sales since 1992, according to a release. The automaker attributed this to growth in home deliveries amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. SUV sales were up by about one-third from a year ago.

"Many markets across Europe have bounced back stronger than expected though still below Q3 last year, with commercial vehicles particularly benefiting from growing societal trends like home deliveries and online shopping," Roelant de Waard, Ford of Europe's vice president of marketing, sales and service, said in a statement.

Huntsman's election to Ford's board brings the total number of directors up to 14. He'll serve on the board's nominating and governance, compensation, and sustainability and innovation committees.

Twitter: @Jgrzelewski