Alan Mulally stepped down as Ford Motor CEO a little more than three years ago, and Ford has been sliding ever since.

What has happened? Why have investors stayed away? Why has Ford quality suffered? Why so many recalls?

How is it that Ford remains absurdly dependent on pickups and SUVs — a problem that has plagued the company for decades and keeps it overly focused on the U.S. market, when China’s market is 40 per cent larger? Why has Ford fallen so far behind the competition in key technologies of the future?

In a word, leadership. It’s been a problem at Ford for years now and we can’t be sure it’s been fixed, even with a new CEO. More on that shortly.

But first, the immediate past. Ford was a powerhouse on May 1, 2014 when Mark Fields took the reins from Mulally after a stunningly successful eight-year run. Fields was not a surprise choice but he was a puzzling one.

Ford’s fully autonomous Fusion Hybrid research vehicle on the streets of Dearborn, Mich.

Those of us who spent decades covering Fields, pegged him as an amiable lightweight who weaved long sentences into empty paragraphs. He was a master of word salads.

Not surprisingly, after just three years as CEO, Fields was jettisoned, landing softly thanks to a truly golden parachute. The new CEO, however, seems a very odd choice.

Jim Hackett has almost no experience in the auto industry. He is, in fact, a former athletic director who made his bones in the office furniture business and started his career selling things like laundry detergent and toothpaste. He appears remarkably ill-suited to run a global car company with all its complexities, both internal and external.

To be fair, Hackett ran Ford’s Smart Mobility Division from 2014 until he got the top job. But during that time, Ford fell way behind its rivals in the auto industry’s cutting edge areas – electrification and autonomous drive. So why Hackett, whose division appeared to be failing the company at a critical time?

Moreover, Hackett’s background does not seem ideal for a car company CEO, and not because he once played centre for the University of Michigan where he studied finance. After university, he toiled at various sales and management jobs at Proctor & Gamble, the sprawling consumer products company.

Ford’s largely aluminum F-150 — the profit engine at Ford.

At 39, he took over Steelcase. He led a sweeping reorganization of the office furniture company, and was by all reports quite successful at it – though nearly 12,000 downsized employees might disagree.

But it’s a long way from P & G and Steelcase to Ford. P & G makes and markets Head & Shoulders shampoo, Charmin bathroom tissue and Pampers disposable diapers, among other things. It’s a marketing powerhouse, but the products themselves are uncomplicated. Steelcase makes work stations. If a diaper leaks or a desk fits poorly, no one dies.

Compare Hackett to Mulally. Boeing, Mulally’s employer before Ford, makes very sophisticated airplanes. In terms of complexity, planes and cars have much in common. And if a plane or car fails, people do die. So when Mulally arrived armed with degrees in aeronautical and astronautical engineering, he seemed spectacularly well-qualified.

Jim Hackett, Ford’s new president and CEO, with Executive Chairman Bill Ford (right).

The point is, if past is prologue, Hackett’s resume selling toilet paper and filing cabinets suggests he is utterly and completely out of his depth as Ford CEO. Which is why Hackett’s new strategic review of Ford’s current and future business – released this week — is so interesting and important.

Adding to the pressure: just days before Hackett unwrapped the review, influential Deutsche Bank auto analyst Rod Lache delivered high praise for crosstown rival General Motors, raising the rating on GM shares to “buy” from “hold,” and predicting GM will attain a big chunk of the rapidly emerging autonomous vehicle market. The message: GM is a market leader, Ford is not.

At least Hackett and his team recognize this. This week Hackett said Ford is ready to get serious about the “smart” mobility business and is diverting $7 billion ((US) from its spectacularly profitable but essentially old-fashioned pickup and SUV business into making sure that 90-100 per cent of its new vehicles will be “connected” by 2019. Another $4.5 billion (US) in R & D money will be diverted to hybrid and electric propulsion, away from internal combustion engines.

2017 Ford Escape

This makes sense. We’re told that by 2030, gas and diesel engines will account for just one-third of global new vehicle sales, down from 90-plus per cent today. Government regulation and cultural shifts towards environmentally friendly vehicles and car sharing point to a world in which consumers prefer electric cars that can drive themselves. And not everyone wants to own one, so ride-sharing initiatives and such will play an essential role in the auto industry of the future..

Ford’s current lineup and technology offerings certainly need work and its ride-sharing plans are, you might say, in diapers. The Focus EV is ancient and clunky compared to rivals like the Chevrolet Bolt, Tesla’s upcoming Tesla Model 3 and Hyundai’s Ioniq EV. And Ford’s hybrids are greybeards by industry standards.

We’ll see if the new CEO, with his history in hairwash, office supplies and football, is up to the job of leading Ford into the smart mobility future. At least for now, he and his Ford team recognize the many problems facing Ford and are proposing well-funded solutions.


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