The question that hangs over Mark Fields, 52-year-old supremo-elect of Ford, is how an apparently nice, uncomplicated bloke could have survived the shark-infested pool that is the management of a mammoth US car corporation to establish himself as the natural replacement for Ford’s already-legendary saviour and current CEO, Alan Mulally.
It’s the question hanging on every industry-watcher’s lips. Whether in choreographed car presentations in Detroit, or at today’s meeting in an unpretentious office inside Ford’s European Design Centre in Cologne, Fields comes across as Mr Nice Guy: instinctively friendly, handsome, well dressed, down-to-earth, lucid, plausible and grounded.
But late last year he was appointed chief operating officer and given day-to-day charge of the entire Ford empire, leaving Mulally to concentrate on longer-term planning and contemplate retirement at the end of next year. The big job, according to Detroit’s grizzled pundits, is now his to lose.
The relaxed approachability is no act. You learn that within a few minutes. But it also suits the new mood at Ford. Big-time execs might once have enjoyed portraying themselves as grandees, but that’s not fashionable any more. Mulally (famously described as the world’s best-known boy scout) has set records for friendliness since he arrived at the company in 2006 with a wide smile and a deceptively simple new plan called One Ford.
Mind you, good-looking, hard-working car execs in their early 50s were never hard to find at Ford. Quite a few fitting that description went down the road when the company’s North American business – led by Fields – had its infamous ‘car crash’ in 2008 and sacked 40 per cent of its white-collar workers. So what makes Fields special?
An early surprise in our chat is that he looks faintly embarrassed about confronting this much-asked question. “I feel a little uncomfortable describing myself,” he begins, rather tentatively. “Let me tell you about my mother…”
His personal secrets are hardly secrets at all. They’re all about determination, planning and persistence; old-fashioned stuff learned as part of a happy childhood in New Jersey, where his first part-time college job was installing electric typewriters for IBM (“We had to bolt them to the desks”).
His main difference from the rest of us seems to be that the persistence came in a larger package. “I’m very determined,” he says, shrugging off the self-consciousness, “and I’m very tenacious. I hate accepting defeat; I think that comes from being the youngest of three brothers. You have to stand up for yourself or they’ll kick the heck out of you.” Only he doesn’t say “heck”.
One big reason for the heir apparent status is undoubtedly his excellent project management record, of which Fields is proud. He joined Ford in 1989 as a product planner on the ’94 Thunderbird programme. “I got to see a car planned, designed, and developed, and pass all the milestones, and I fell in love with the process,” he recalls. Within a decade he had progressed far enough up the pole to be seen as a turnaround specialist, a safe pair of hands.
In 2000 he went to Mazda (“a very tough turnaround situation”), and two years later Fields was running Ford of Europe, then the Premier Automotive Group. “At that stage we had no plan to dismantle it, just to get four divisions working together while keeping separate identities,” he says.
In 2005 he took control of Ford’s engine room, its American operations, where things looked reasonably rosy until disaster struck in 2008. It was a bad time. Managers held near-daily crisis meetings, and nobody knew where or when the market would bottom out.
Yet two years later, led by momentum in the Americas, Ford began an extraordinary recovery – both in profits and market share – that continues today, partly because it is respected as the only one of Detroit’s Big Three not to need a government bail-out, and partly thanks to One Ford’s rapid launch of enticing new models. Mulally gets the major plaudits, but as Fields points out, “Alan did a fantastic job building the culture and strategy of One Ford, but many contributed to its delivery.”
Fields cheerfully admits he’s not an outright ‘car guy’, probably buoyed by the fact that neither is Mulally, nor Akerson at GM or Marchionne at Fiat-Chrysler. But he enjoys driving cars, both home-grown models and rivals, believes racing runs in Ford’s blood, and still owns the Datsun 280ZX that was his first new car. “I will always love the way our business works,” he says. “I guess I’m a business guy first and a car lover a close second.”
As well as refocusing the greater Ford Motor Company on the Blue Oval brand, Mulally’s arrival bred a remarkable new spirit of co-operation and inclusiveness to management previously known for all-out war between fiefdoms. Insiders say Fields was quick to embrace the new ways, but had hardly been Mr Perfect. There are authoritative accounts of him coming close to blows with former finance chief Don Leclair, who tried at one stage to usurp his authority as boss of the Americas.
He also struck trouble, pre-recession, for using the Ford jet for weekend visits to family in Florida (his contrition was rapid and total). And for a while elements of the US media teased at his well-groomed image by cracking ‘mullet’ jokes about his thick, collar-length hair, which he defused by referring to it in a speech or two. Today, these things are history and his focus is on the future.
“Years ago, we’d talk about having competitive products,” he explains. “That was the target – to match our rivals. Now we talk about product excellence as absolute, which has raised the bar a long way. Once, if someone was having trouble with production or cost targets, we were inclined to lower standards. But today’s Ford has fallen back in love with the product. Making the best cars is our number one priority, so when problems arise we all co-operate to defeat them.”
Not once during our 70 minutes together does Fields ever suggest he’ll be Mulally’s successor. Chairman Bill Ford has admonished us all not to read too much into the latest round of promotions, and Fields sticks to the rules. Just the same, he makes it clear that, if elevated, there’s absolutely no chance of him being seen as a new broom.
“Whenever there’s a management change in a big company, people want to know about the new strategy,” he says. “You’re not worth two cents, they say, unless you’ve got a new strategy. Well, our answer is we’ve all had a hand in One Ford, and it’s working. The shiny new thing is the shiny old thing. We’re not going to subject ourselves to a lot of upheaval. We’re going to take this fantastic idea we’ve all helped to develop, and make it better.”
But better how? “We still have tremendous opportunities. We’re using muscles we haven’t used in a long time. We’re only five years into changing a culture developed over decades, and rooting the changes into the next generation. In 2008, if you told people you worked for Ford, they’d look down and tell you how sorry they were.
"Now they grip your hand and say ‘good for you’. That’s how we know we’re going in the right direction.”