Farley Ascends As Ford CEO With Departure Of Hackett

Former Steelcase chief never really displayed the vision thing, so Bill Ford turns to a proven internal riser in Farley

New Ford CEO James Farley

Ford Motor Co. CEO Jim Hackett never really got his footing in more than three years of leading America’s second-largest automaker, so he’ll be making way later this year for Jim Farley, who is now Ford’s chief operating officer.

The 65-year-old Hackett will retire October 1, Ford said in a press release, with the 58-year-old Farley ascending to the job in a smooth transition. Early this year, Farley, who then was strategy chief, effectively beat out his rival as heir apparent, Joe Hinrichs, who had been the company’s manufacturing chief.

“I am very grateful to Jim Hackett for all he has done to modernize Ford and prepare us to compete and win in the future,” said Bill Ford, the company’s executive chairman and scion of the founding family.

Yet what Hackett’s departure actually means is Ford is still searching for a worthy successor to Alan Mulally, the ex-Boeing executive and Ford’s CEO from 2006 to 2014. Mulally became one of the most accomplished Ford chiefs since Henry Ford himself when he led Ford through the Great Recession without the company’s taking a government bailout and successfully overhauled Ford’s product lineup and manufacturing footprint. He became renowned for crafting the company’s “One Ford” innovation platform that guided his tenure.

Former Ford CEO Jim Hackett

Bill Ford turned to Mark Fields, a Ford lifer, to succeed Mulally, and then broomed Fields in 2017. Determined to shake up the company again and find the next Mulally, Bill Ford made a huge reach and hired Hackett. He had become enamored of Hackett because he wanted to bring in a change agent and someone who could give Ford’s mobility and autonomous-driving efforts a big push that had been lacking under Fields. Hackett was a Ford director and had been heading the Ford Smart Mobility subsidiary since 2016, responsible for the company’s plans to design, build, grow and invest in autonomous vehicles and other emerging mobility services.

Hackett had become known as a people’s CEO and somewhat of a tech guru in leading a transformation of Steelcase, the office-furniture maker based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a position from which he retired in 2014 after having spent 20 years at the company. Then, serving as interim athletic director at his alma mater, the University of Michigan, Hackett went on to make what was arguably the biggest decision of his career as an executive: In 2016 he hired former Wolverine quarterback Jim Harbaugh to return to coach the football team.

Leap of Faith

Hiring Hackett was always going to be a huge leap of faith for Bill Ford, who’s always been in search of visionary leadership to get the family company to a greater future. Hackett made some immediate progress in improving the company’s finances during the height of the 10-year North American sales boom, for example, and revived a Lincoln marque that Fields largely had neglected.

Hackett presided over some important launches, including the latest version of Ford’s crucial F-150 pickup-truck line, the new all-electric version of Mustang, and the just-introduced Bronco that is meant to fight the Jeep Wrangler. But from 2017 until last year, Hackett never firmly signaled an overall game plan for Ford in the post-boom future that also was going to involve more all-electric vehicles as well as mobility services. And Bill Ford allowed Hackett to dawdle.

Then last year, on Hackett’s watch, Ford blew the launch of the important new version of its Explorer SUV, with manufacturing-quality problems plaguing the new vehicle for months. That led to the departure of Hinrichs, an internally beloved Ford lifer, and the ascension to COO of Farley, whose regard by the troops is decidedly mixed. It may also have hastened Hackett’s departure.

What Farley Faces

The current industry wreckage caused by Covid-19 and the recession – which have ravaged sales and profits, of course, roiled the corporate culture and delayed investments in future technologies — may have influenced Bill Ford’s timing in making the move to Farley, giving his new CEO the reins amid trouble so that Farley can be credited with gains Ford makes during any general recovery.

In any event, Farley seems to have been destined for this job for several years. Farley cut his teeth in the industry at Lexus, rising to chief of all sales and marketing, then jumped to Ford in November 2007, surging up through the ranks in positions including CMO, head of the Lincoln brand, executive vice president of Ford’s business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa and, since March, chief operating officer, with responsibilities for all of Ford’s global markets and automotive operations.

Now Farley will have the opportunity to marry his grasp of the traditional auto industry with his own vision for the future of electrified and autonomous mobility at Ford – a vision that, if Hackett harbored one, never really got out of the garage.

“Jim Farley matches an innate feel for cars and customers with great instincts for the future and the new technologies that are changing our industry,” Bill Ford said. “Jim’s passion for great vehicles and his intense drive for results are well known, and I have also seen him develop into a transformational leader with the determination and foresight to help Ford thrive into the future.”