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.