Jim Farley is exactly the kind of enthusiast you don’t find at the top of multinational car companies.
He’s too much like the rest of us: living and breathing cars, mending them, restoring them, racing them and trading them when he has time.
In fact, as a young graduate, Ford’s new, 53-year-old president of Europe, Middle East and Africa almost didn’t join the car business because he feared corporate contamination might spoil his precious hobby.
Farley eventually did join the car game, but only after spells in the computer and financial industries (“I liked computers, but not as much as cars”). Part of the persuasion process was receiving post-MBA offers from every major American car company. Another incentive was indulging his abiding curiosity to discover what made giant industrial firms tick.
“There were times when I’d spend my vacation working on production lines,” he says without guile. “I loved seeing the greasy bits combine into a car and understanding how decisions were reached on volumes, prices and model mix.”
This love of the whole business is a major reason why Farley accepted an offer last January to lead Ford in Europe. In a novel move that raised eyebrows at the time but now looks rather logical, Farley swapped his job as Ford’s Dearborn-based global sales and marketing chief directly with that of previous European president Stephen Odell, who had just led Ford of Europe out of recession and to the brink of profitability.
On a day when Farley felt ready to discuss his new mission, we met in the somewhat unconventional setting of Autocar’s photo archive (13 million images and counting, dating back to 1895).
There were decent reasons: to provide an interesting photo backdrop, to show Farley the comprehensive picture collection we have of his early mentor, the late F1 champion and car collector Phil Hill, and to spark his interest in our coverage of Ford’s history. Maybe even to dig out a few pictures of the two Lola racing cars he campaigns in classic events, characteristically without fuss.
After just a few minutes, it was clear that Farley never boasts. He listens almost as much as he talks.
Farley began his car industry career as a product planner at Lexus USA in 1990. He chose Toyota rather than an American company because theirs was an opportunity to work with engineers on a whole car, rather than pieces of it, as with the others. In 25 years, he has progressed from the bottom to the very top.
This new Ford of Europe gig gives him day-to-day charge of his idea of a near-perfect business: one that dreams up the new models it then builds and sells.
He cites several other incentives for crossing the Atlantic. One was a conviction (formed while working in Phil Hill’s restoration shop, a two-year stint that earned him “a PhD in cars”) that Europe continues to make the world’s best cars. Another was the belief that embracing Ford of Europe’s design and manufacturing practices greatly helped the company to achieve its global One Ford ambitions, espoused by then-president and CEO Alan Mulally.
I hadn’t heard Europe’s contribution to One Ford described this way before and remark on it, whereupon Farley reinforces the comment. “I joined Ford from Toyota in 2007 because of the strength of Ford of Europe’s model line-up,” he explains. “The Premier Automotive Group cars were still around, but I was looking directly at the core Ford product and its DNA, which I knew quite well because I’d been competing directly against them. I could see Ford was going to be able to achieve its objectives.”
But that was all eight years ago. Today’s challenges are different, and Farley articulates his view of them very clearly. “We must decide what Ford of Europe’s next gift to the group will be,” he says, “and it should be something the group couldn’t or wouldn’t do on its own.”