Ford Refocuses its Mobility Strategy

Mark Fields’ ouster last month as Ford’s CEO underscores the growing importance, complexity and speed of change autonomous vehicles and new mobility services are having on the global auto industry.

Ford had been riding high from a profit standpoint since Fields moved into the top job following Alan Mulally’s retirement in mid-2014. In his short tenure as CEO, Fields presided over the successful revival of the company’s operations in Europe and China, and oversaw the launch of the redesigned F-150 pickup truck, which continues to be the industry’s top-selling model.

Fields also tried to recast Ford as a leader in new mobility services. The effort included creating a new subsidiary, Ford Smart Mobility LLC, and investing in and acquiring a number of tech companies. The automaker also set an aggressive target for launching a fully autonomous vehicle for ride services by 2021.

But critics say Fields was slow, indecisive and unfocused as the company tried to toe the line as a traditional automaker while pushing ahead with new transportation technologies and services. Others faulted Fields for being preoccupied on next-generation mobility systems while letting Ford’s conventional—and current profit-making—businesses lapse.

Lacking communication skills and leadership, Fields failed to articulate a clear vision to Wall Street, which was reflected in a nearly 40% drop in Ford’s stock price over the past few years. The situation was exasperated when Ford’s market value was eclipsed by Tesla in April, even though the electric vehicle has yet to turn a profit. One analyst noted Tesla “engenders optimism, freedom and defiance,” which Ford and other traditional automakers are missing.

Fields was an outsider in Silicon Valley. This was apparent in Ford’s botched attempt at partnering with Google on autonomous vehicles in late 2015. The tech giant initially was attracted to Ford because of the reputation the automaker had built under Mulally and Chairman Bill Ford Jr., who has been a strong advocate of “green” technologies. But Google’s management team quickly soured on the prospective deal, which they envisioned as a low-key technical partnership while Fields seemed more keen on using it to impress Wall Street.

Fields’ replacement, Jim Hackett, is well respected in the tech industry. He was tapped to lead the carmaker’s Ford Smart Mobility unit and spearheaded its growth over the past year. Hackett, who previously was the CEO of Steelcase furniture, is viewed by Ford’s leadership team as a “true change agent” with collaborative skills similar to those demonstrated by Mullally.

In addition to Hackett’s appointment as CEO, Ford has made several other management changes. The shakeup expands the role of Marcy Klevorn, formerly Ford’s chief information officer, who takes over Ford Smart Mobility and will head global IT and “data, insight and analytics.”

Moving forward, Ford has set three priorities, starting with improving its operational efficiency and leveraging emerging technologies such as big data, robotics and artificial intelligence to modernize its business. Meeting the last goal may prove to be the most challenging: adjusting its culture and nimbleness to “succeed as society’s needs and consumer behavior change.”

Like other carmakers, Ford has to learn how to balance the dual demands of growing its traditional business while launching its emerging smart mobility operations. The trick is to find a way to integrate the two together under the company’s “One Ford” strategy, rather than treating them as competing businesses as was being done under Fields’ leadership.

Time is of the essence. “We have to move faster, and we have to trust people to move faster,” Bill Ford stresses, noting the increased speed of change around the world. It’s Hackett’s job to sharpen the company’s focus, create a clear strategy and align everyone toward achieving it.