Ford CEO Jim Hackett Faces His Shareholders

Back in January when Jim Hackett was only Ford’s mobility chief, he was wondering about President Trump’s first 100 days. Now, Hackett must report to investors on his own first 100 days—as Ford’s CEO.

Hackett was a surprising choice to many when Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. tapped him to succeed Mark Fields as chief in June. Hackett described himself as having one foot in retirement, and his most recent CEO job had been as head of Steelcase, a company in Grand Rapids, Mich., that makes office furniture.

To hear many in Michigan tell it, Hackett’s biggest accomplishment had been to hire the firebrand Jim Harbaugh as the University of Michigan’s football coach in late 2015 when Hackett was serving as the school’s interim athletic director, after he “retired” from Steelcase.

But here Hackett is, now in charge of transitioning a 114-year-old company that is synonymous with traditional manufacturing into a savvier, sleeker, faster version of itself that can drive technological change rather than be passed by it.

Investors will be eager to hear details of what he’s done so far and, more importantly, his agenda for picking up the pace of change at Ford and doing so effectively. Their reluctance to trust Fields’ leadership—as reflected in a stock price that swooned by nearly 40% during his tenure—helped oust Hackett’s predecessor. Shares have ticked up by about 10 percent under Hackett.

“The clock speed at which the world is moving, and our competitors, really requires us to make decisions at a faster pace,” Bill Ford said when appointing Hackett. “And we have to trust our people to move fast. It’s not command and control.”

Hackett already has executed some big decisions, including reassigning Ford luminaries Joe Hinrichs, now in charge of global manufacturing; Jim Farley, now global sales and marketing chief; and Marcy Klevorn, now in charge of mobility, essentially the spot that Hackett had when he joined Ford in 2016.

He also took the potentially politically difficult step of deciding to move production of Ford’s Focus small car to China from North America, where the issue of building the model in the United States versus Mexico got caught up in presidential politics last year. He invited tech-industry leaders to come and inspire Ford’s top 300 executives at a leadership meeting in August. And he began exploring a cost-sharing partnership with Mahindra in India.

But Hackett has only begun to scratch the kinds of challenges that felled Fields, who succeeded the now-legendary Alan Mulally in 2014. Ford has become over-reliant on profits from its F 150 truck line and fell behind in two important segments under Fields: compact SUVs and new-era mid-sized pickup trucks, where Ford finally will have a presence beginning in 2018.

And while Ford dealers and others are most concerned about what the company is doing to plug present product gaps, over the long term the most important thing for Hackett would be to make Ford a strong player in self-driving and mobility services – areas that, even a couple of years ago, Fields was still not pushing fast enough. Just last week, Ford notched a partnership with Lyft to deploy self-driving vehicles even though the ride-sharing pioneer is 9-percent-owned by General Motors.

“In the past few years, Ford simply hasn’t had a compelling narrative that investors could latch onto,” Brian Johnson, Barclays auto analyst, told the Wall Street Journal. Hackett needs to take a “bold course of action” to revive Wall Street’s interest.

Hackett will rely greatly on his intellect, his management style and relationships.

Known as a long-time member of TED, Hackett made Steelcase an innovation and design driver in the staid office-furniture business. Among other things, he decided to put most Steelcase equipment on wheels so workers could reconfigure their work spaces in the new era of open office environments – at a time when the company’s bedrock product was cubicles.

Hackett also is likely to encourage more of such “design thinking” at Ford, and he has hired IDEO – a design firm once majority-owned by Steelcase – to help it. One of Hackett’s ways to speed decision-making is to make sure to ask the right questions early in the process and to allow managers time to think ideas through thoroughly up front.

One reason Bill Ford initially hired Hackett to run the company’s mobility thrust, after his University of Michigan assignment was done, was that Hackett had deep relationships from his Steelcase days in Silicon Valley, where Ford was still trying to penetrate under Fields.

And it was Hackett’s Michigan-based relationship with Domino’s CEO Patrick Doyle that led directly to Ford’s decision to partner with Domino’s to develop self-driven pizza-delivery vehicles. “I called him about a year ago and said we should be chatting,” Doyle told Chief Executive.

Doyle has developed a reputation as a visionary after leading Domino’s on a technology-fueled climb to the performance apex of the highly competitive pizza business. Maybe his friend Jim Hackett can do something similar for Ford.

“It’s human nature to get pulled into the now, and the reward systems are built that way,” Hackett told the New York Times in 2012. “You have to think in terms of making good on this notion that if you’re really a great leader, you’re going to be noted for it long after you’ve been gone. That’s because you actually reached out and imagined the state of things in the future.”

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Dale Buss
Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other top-flight business publications. He lives in Michigan.

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