Deere & Co. CEO tapped to serve on Ford's board of directors

Jordyn Grzelewski
The Detroit News

Ford Motor Co. on Thursday revealed some reshuffling within its senior leadership ranks, including the appointment of Deere & Co.'s CEO to its board of directors and the departure of the automaker's chief government relations officer.

The Dearborn automaker's board of directors elected John C. May, the chairman and CEO of agricultural equipment manufacturer Deere, to serve as a company director, effective Thursday. May will serve on the board's finance, compensation, talent and culture, and nominating and governance committees. His election expands Ford's board to 15 members.

John C. May

In a statement, Executive Chairman Bill Ford pointed to May's experience transforming Deere — which last year unveiled a new operating model aimed at transforming the agriculture and construction industries through the "rapid introduction of new technologies"— into a "smart industrial company" as relevant to Ford's own technology endeavors.

“Our industry is in an exciting period of disruption and we’re changing Ford in significant ways that are good for all our customers and stakeholders, with advanced technology and digital connectivity at the center,” Bill Ford said. “That’s what Deere is doing in its businesses, making John’s expertise invaluable to our board as the Ford management team executes the company’s strategy for growth and value creation.”

Though the overlap between cars and tractors may not be immediately obvious, Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, said the connection is clear: Deere has long been investing resources in developing and implementing technologies that enable automation in equipment and the use of data to guide farming techniques, and is doing many of the same things that Ford is looking to do with its products, particularly in the commercial vehicle space.

"Ag tech is more advanced in connected and intelligent mobility movement of vehicles than the car or the truck business — and Deere is a leader," Gordon said. "The CEO of Deere, of the board members, (will) be one of the most knowledgeable in the high technologies that Ford needs.”

May has spent most of his career with the 184-year-old, Moline, Ill.-based company that recently reached an agreement with some 10,000 of its workers, who are represented by the United Auto Workers, to end a five-week strike.

Before becoming CEO of Deere, May previously served as president and chief operating officer and president of the company's worldwide agriculture and turf division. He previously was responsible for the Americas and Australia regions, and served as chief information officer and president of agricultural solutions. He spent three years as managing director of Deere's China operations. 

He joined Deere in 1997 after five years as a management consultant at KPMG Peat Marwick, according to a news release. May has a bachelor's degree from the University of New Hampshire and a master's degree in business administration from the University of Maine.

Meanwhile, the automaker also announced Thursday that Mitch Bainwol, chief government relations officer, is retiring on Dec. 31 after nearly three years on the job.

Bainwol, a corporate officer, joined Ford in the role in March 2019. He is a veteran Washington lobbyist who, prior to joining Ford, headed up the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers, an industry group that lobbies for both U.S. and foreign-owned automakers.

Mitch Bainwol

With Bainwol's departure, Ford's government relations team will report to Steven Croley — the company's chief policy officer and general counsel who joined the company in July — on an interim basis until a successor is appointed, the company said in a news release.

“Partnering with governments is critical to constantly simplifying, advancing and accelerating what we do, so that we’re always giving customers and society the value they deserve,” Ford CEO Jim Farley said in a statement. “Mitch and his team have done a great job making those relationships possible and productive, putting Ford in the middle of important policy discussions.”

Prior to his roles at Ford and the Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers, Bainwol served as chief of staff for both U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Florida Sen. Connie Mack, both Republicans, as well as for the Republican National and National Republican Senatorial committees. From 2003 to 2011, he was chairman and CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America. He started his career as a budget analyst at the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan.

Farley credited Bainwol and his team with playing a crucial role in developing a landmark framework on reducing vehicle emissions with the state of California and subsequently 16 other U.S. states and Washington, D.C., and leading the political process behind Ford's selection of sites in Tennessee and Kentucky for an $11.4 billion investment to build new electric vehicle and battery cell plants.

The moves announced Thursday come amid a broader internal realignment since Farley became CEO in October 2020 and implemented a turnaround plan centered on electric and commercial vehicles, and leveraging software and data to create new, recurring revenue streams. Ford in recent months has stepped up its EV commitments, saying it will invest $30 billion in EVs through 2025, announcing the $11.4 billion investment in EV and battery cell manufacturing, and upping its EV production target to 600,000 units globally by 2023.

Ford has been bolstering its senior leadership ranks around policy and technology as it attempts to execute its goals. Farley, for example, hired a former Apple and Tesla engineer to head up advanced technology initiatives.

And in May 2020, Ford hired Alex Purdy away from Deere to lead the automaker's digital connectivity product portfolio strategy. Purdy previously served as head of John Deere Labs and director of precision agriculture strategy and business development, where his work was credited with leading to innovations around the use of automation and artificial intelligence.

Ford last year tapped Jon Huntsman Jr. — the former Utah governor, businessman, diplomat and onetime presidential candidate — to rejoin the company's board before giving him an expanded role earlier this year as vice chair of policy. Huntsman, a Republican, went on to recruit Croley, a former federal lawyer who worked in the Obama administration. 

The reshuffling comes as federal policy is expected to play an even more important role as the automotive industry engineers a massive, costly transition to electric, autonomous and technologically-advanced vehicles. The federal government will play a significant role in shaping how that transition unfolds, with input into everything from EV charging infrastructure, supply-chain issues and mandates on vehicle emissions.

As just one example: President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed an executive order pledging to buy only zero-emissions vehicles for the federal fleet by 2035. And earlier this year, Biden set the goal of making 50% of new-vehicle sales zero-emissions by 2030; the Detroit Three agreed to aim for that target.

Twitter: @JGrzelewski