My first encounter with Mark Fields, now COO but soon to be CEO of Ford, was at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, circa 2001. Then head of Mazda, he introduced the RX-8 and said it was likely to be “the next big thing in sports cars….I wouldn’t be surprised if you see this car—or something very close—on some of the world’s most scenic, most fun-to-drive highways in the not-so-distant future.”
Well, the RX-8 didn’t set the world on fire (a quirky rear door and odd styling were just two problems), but Fields did preside over a expansion of the Mazda brand, which could be seen as a fattening up for sale, since Ford was largely out of the company by 2010.
Fields has been a good soldier at Ford, and if he was trying to push out popular CEO Alan Mulally, it must have been well behind the scenes. Comparisons with another insider—GM’s new CEO, Mary Barra—are tempting, since they’re both consummate insiders. Indeed, at the New York Auto Show this year, Fields was on message. His remarks were largely about the Mustang’s 50th anniversary.
Fields, who grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Rutgers and then Harvard Business School, said he was taken at age 2 to see the Mustang at the New York World’s Fair. “It was my first interaction with the company,” he said. “The Mustang was an entirely new class of vehicle, and my dad lifted me on his shoulders to see it. From the size of the crowd, I could see it was a really big deal.”
But Fields managed to smoothly transition to the present by nodding to “Ford’s big bet on fuel efficiency,” praising car-sharing services like Hertz, Zipcar and Enterprise, giving a nod to the company’s new aluminum-bodied F-150 truck, and name-checking the somewhat embattled Sync voice command system while nodding to Ford’s early recognition of mobile phone use in the car. During the Q&A, he defended the ailing Lincoln brand and said Ford is “absolutely committed” to making it “a world-class luxury brand. “We’re on the same journey as we were with the Ford brand,” he said, "and we’ve had six months of sales growth driven by the MKZ. The MKC [a crossover SUV built on the Escape platform] is coming.”
And Fields demonstrated that Ford is now a world car company—even the iconic Mustang is going to be a global vehicle platform. “There are one billion cars on the road worldwide now, but we could double that in 20 years, then possibly double it again,” he said. “We have to find ways to address congestion and wasted time behind the wheel.”
Ford’s “blueprint for mobility,” he said, includes both fully and semi-autonomous vehicles. A form of that is already in Ford’s lineup with technology like lane-keeping and parking assists. Ford, Fields said, is also working on vehicle-to-vehicle communications—an essential for making self-driving cars actually work.
Fields quoted Henry Ford, who once said, “If I asked people what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses.” You could say that dwelling on retro Mustangs is kind of like faster horses, but that would be unfair—Ford has effectively transformed itself in recent years, and Fields gets huge props for steering the North American operations through the financial crisis. He led a restructuring that began in 2006, two years before the ax fell.
GM and Chrysler took huge government bailouts, but Ford didn’t. Mulally gets a lot of credit for that, but Fields is now reaping his reward for being in the right place at the right time. Sure, he caught some flak for taking the company plane on trips home to Florida (it cost the company $500,000), but he weathered that storm.
The New York Times reports that Fields was already taking on many of Mulally's responsibilities, including running the company's weekly business plan meetings. He's in place for an easy handover, but not everybody is happy with the choice. Management consultant Kevin Paul Scott says Ford should have found a talented outsider, as Mulally was (from Boeing):
They chose to go with stability in their selection. While Fields is accomplished and known in the industry, he represents a stable choice that will consolidate gains that were made by his predecessor. Ford stood poised to make even greater gains and become a more significant player in the American market, but to accomplish this they needed another bold step and another outsider not wedded to the usual ways of the auto industry. This is why the Fields appointment is simply a missed opportunity for the second-largest U.S.automaker.
Fields could take over from Mulally as early as July, which may mean a faster transition than was originally planned.