Howes: Loud, hot Atlanta builds Ford manufacturing boss
Cologne, Germany — Linda Cash didn’t plan to stay.
Fresh out of Georgia Tech with a degree in industrial engineering, she showed up for work in June of 1984 at Ford Motor Co.’s now-defunct Atlanta Assembly Plant. She figured she’d put the Blue Oval on her resume, move on and stay near her hometown of Brunswick.
The scene was loud and hot, she remembers telling her mother. The company and the nation were emerging from a tough recession that hammered the Detroit auto industry and winnowed the United Auto Workers. The work in Atlanta was “very, very urgent,” the heartbeat of what automakers do — and she loved it.
“The thing I love the most is that at the end of the day you can see your results,” Cash, 53, says in an interview at her office inside Ford of Europe headquarters. Come Jan. 1, the director of vehicle operations will become a Ford officer and vice president of manufacturing here, an assignment that will make Cash Ford’s top manufacturing exec in a region still struggling to regain profitability.
Getting there is not proving easy. Ford of Europe continues to make progress trimming its losses, but executives decline to predict when the unit will be profitable again. Still, it is continually refreshing its line-up, offering hot North American models like the iconic Ford Mustang and pulling its commercial vehicle business into first place across Europe.
Cash is in the middle of it all. Her long road to her first foreign assignment travels a familiar path inside Ford’s sprawling manufacturing operations, pieces of which are now consigned to history: assistant plant manager at St. Louis Assembly, now closed; assistant plant manager at Michigan Truck in Wayne, back when it produced virtually all the cash driving Ford’s profitability.
Next came assistant plant manager at a completely renovated Dearborn Truck, a plant in the shadow of the Glass House that she would then run as plant manager. What did you like most, I ask: “Everything. Everything. Everything.”
You come across people like this all the time in the auto biz — committed, enthusiastic, almost addicted to the throb of the business, its daily challenges, its rewards and its rituals. New product launches. Quality checks. Daily reports on performance. Labor talks.
Because of her new gig, Cash missed being part of Ford’s contract talks with Vice President Jimmy Settles and his UAW team. Bring it up, as I did in passing on a cold, gray November day, and you sense she really misses the game, the parrying, the chance to see how the complexity of bargaining affects so many aspects of Ford’s business.
This daughter of Georgia, born on the Fourth of July, is a long way from home. She’s trading the UAW for IG Metall, the powerful German union. Instead of Dearborn Truck, she’ll have a plant network that stretches from Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom in the west to Russia, Romania and Turkey in the east. That’s complexity, too, in multiple languages and cultures.
No small job, that, for anyone. Or for a woman in a manly industry, or for an African-American in a European manufacturing space dominated by white males. General Motors Co. may be led by a woman, Ford may have women in high-ranking positions (including Cash’s boss, Barbara Samardzich, the chief operating officer of Ford of Europe) and Germany’s Chancellor may be Angela Merkel.
But Ford’s European-owned rivals? Theirs is still mostly a man’s world. Efforts to diversify the ranks of senior management with women (much less minorities) in Europe moves at glacial speed when compared to American companies in myriad industries — the Detroit-based auto industry included.
Generally speaking, the Detroit Three wins the industry’s diversity sweepstakes hands-down, somewhat in Europe but particularly in the management ranks inside corporate headquarters back home. Cash is not the only example, even if she is setting a new precedent inside Ford of Europe.
“This is a very, very diverse culture,” she says of Ford. “I don’t see any reaction to my race or my gender. I’m just another person in the company. I thought” Germany “would be very strict and regulated and maybe not quite as warm. This team has really embraced me.”
To be successful, she’ll need to do the same — eat the food, drink the wine, try to talk the language and remember her own mantra: “At the end of the day, you can see your results.”
And be judged by them.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.
Catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM