Alan Mulally was cast as a savior for Ford because he led the rescue in the basics of designing, developing, making and marketing traditional automobiles. That was a huge challenge, and having succeeded at it, the man who became Ford’s CEO in 2006 retired in glory in 2014.
But Ford’s current CEO Mark Fields may be facing a challenge that’s even more formidable than the one Mulally encountered. And it’s evocative of the challenges that nearly all global automotive CEOs face.
Fields and his colleagues must keep Ford highly competitive in a US and global car sales environment that has cooled noticeably, even while they pivot decisively, forcefully and sustainably toward a future that will be noticeably different based on just two developments alone: the self-driving push and electric vs. gasoline vehicles.
Where Mulally rallied the troops around the idea of “One Ford,” a mission statement that fit on a wallet card and had to do with pulling together (think “Go Further”) to downsize and overhaul the company to survive the Great Recession and thrive after it, Fields is today leading “Two Fords,” or as the Wall Street Journal puts it, “recasting the company as an automaker and a transportation-services provider.”
The latter mobility push (“Changing the way the world moves to make people’s lives better”) includes accelerating development of autonomous self-driving vehicles; transforming the customer experience; investing in transportation services such as ride-sharing, bike-sharing and laser sensors; expanding Ford’s Silicon Valley office; connectivity; analytics and “extracting value from data“; and even promising to make the company’s headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, more like the creative tech playgrounds found at the Silicon Valley campuses of Google and Apple.
Clearly, as of two years ago, this was not the way Fields was talking. He acknowledged that Ford was working on autonomous driving scenarios but wasn’t interested in a race to be first to the finish line with truly self-driving automobiles. He just wanted Ford to be a successful provider of affordable self-driving cars.
Since then, Fields has done an about-face, wanting Ford to get ahead of megatrends and lead the industry toward the rollout of a fully self-piloted vehicle by 2025—even while many of his peers, such as such as Toyota CEO Jim Lentz, favor first introducing vehicles that heavily assist drivers rather than take over for them.
“They have a lot of the right initiatives; they’re doing something in every box,” Brian Johnson, a Barclays auto analyst, told the Journal. “The difference from the Mulally days is there isn’t a single message that is more than just public relations, tying it all together.”
Other CEOs are also navigating through the new realities of the industry. Dieter Zetsche of Daimler AG, parent of Mercedes-Benz, has launched the luxury brand toward an unprecedented investment in electrified vehicles. And Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, arguably took a stronger and earlier turn toward both broader vehicle electrification—now being manifested in vehicles such as its Chevy Bolt EV—and self-driving, which showed up in GM’s investments in mobility services brands such as Lyft and Cruise Automation.