Howes: Team Hackett must target clarity, complacency

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Ford Motor Co.’s new CEO, Jim Hackett, is real big on teamwork. Now he’ll get a chance to prove it, urgently.

The former Steelcase Inc. chief and one-time interim athletic director at the University of Michigan is leading the biggest team of his career. His job is negotiating Ford’s fraught transition to an autos-and-mobility company as investors demand strong results today, a credible strategy for the future and assurance the Blue Oval can get there.

It won’t be easy, as his ousted predecessor, Mark Fields, could attest. Nor will it come without pressure and persistent skepticism: Can a 114-year-old industrial icon heavily dependent on pickups and SUVs compete with industry rivals and Silicon Valley heavyweights for advantage in an emerging mobility space still more about promise than reality?

A big part of the answer depends on how effectively Hackett, 62, leads his new team, how clearly he can distill and communicate Ford’s strategies to constituencies inside and outside the company, and whether he can notch some early victories to prove he’s the right guy at the right time.

Hackett “loves being part of a team,” Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh said in an interview this week with The Detroit News. “He’s humble. He’s hungry to make the team better. Very smart. He makes great decisions. He’s got a humility and he listens.

“Tough? Tough as a two-dollar steak. He’s like your lead blocker. He’s got great ideas. Very much an innovator — and an improver, too. It doesn’t matter whose idea it is. It’s getting to the best idea.”

Exactly. Hackett, who wooed Harbaugh back to Michigan after a stint in the National Football League, played center for legendary Bo Schembechler’s team. Over two decades as Steelcase CEO, he led its transition from a traditional office furniture maker to a company that transforms the way people work — a sometimes difficult journey that did not necessarily reward shareholders in the process.

The Ford assignment, finalized last weekend, carries bigger stakes. If Hackett can corral the sprawling Ford team of 202,000 worldwide, move it in the right direction and focus it on the best ideas, he’ll have a far better chance of steering the Blue Oval where it needs to go.

Emphasis on the word if. Rallying a team that size behind a cause still poorly defined would be hard in difficult times, like the meltdown of 2008. Rallying them after two record years of profitability — and the prospect of $9 billion more this year — will be even harder.

Ford has a long history of counter-attacking when its collective back is against the wall and the enterprise is threatened. The best-selling Taurus sedan emerged from the Reagan recession; F-Series trucks, a perennial industry leader, power automotive earnings; the industrial restructuring led by former CEO Alan Mulally flourished because Ford had no choice.

It had to change or die. A Chapter 11 bankruptcy akin to those engineered by the feds at General Motors Corp. and the Chrysler unit of today’s Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV likely would have ended Ford family control of the company founded in 1903 — a critical reason the company moved when it still could to secure what Mulally later called the “largest home improvement loan in history.”

Now is not one of those times. Profits are fat. North America is generating huge profits. Europe once again is contributing to the bottom line. The business in China, still comparatively small, is growing. And Mulally’s legacy of incremental success is believed to be cemented.

But it’s not, not in a hyper-competitive industry feeling the stress of investor demand for higher profit margins, faster growth and smarter use of scarce capital invested in the right places. Not in an automotive world expected to change more in the next five years than it has in the past 50.

Ford’s electrification, autonomy and mobility efforts, Hackett’s former patch as chairman of Ford Smart Mobility LLC, are making moves. They’re not yet enough to make any kind of meaningful financial contribution, or to persuade traditional constituencies in Dearborn and across the Ford diaspora that autonomy and mobility are for real.

The upshot: Crisis? What crisis? Hourly workers are pocketing fat profit-sharing payouts. Salaried employees are getting bonuses. But for the 1,400 voluntary buyouts coming soon in North America and Asia, times are fairly good for the automaker Mulally began to pull back from the brink a decade ago.

Rally that. Of all the challenges facing Hackett and Executive Chairman Bill Ford, now clearly inserting himself more directly into daily management of key functions, none will be more important — and more problematic — than conveying urgency with clarity.

And making folks believe it.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.