When Ford CEO Mark Fields hired Jim Hackett to become his mobility guru last year, the job seemed daunting. Fields had begun strategically committing his company to compete in the newly forming auto industry paradigm around mobility services, including autonomous and connected driving.
But only several months later, Hackett’s charge as chairman of Ford Smart Mobility LLC—Ford’s Palo Alto, Calif.-based subsidiary to design, build, grow and invest in emerging mobility services and opportunities—looks even larger.
That’s because Fields has continued to up the ante for the company’s commitment to a digitally-dictated future of sharing rides, splitting up commutes, disrupting car ownership, partnering with cities such as San Francisco to test its GoBike initiative and solve congestion issues, hiring a Ford Smart Mobility CEO in Raj Rao (who reports to Hackett) and electrifying vehicles — all in addition to Ford’s core business of developing, making and selling vehicles to individuals and companies.
Ford has been sharing part of that ever-broadening vision with its “City of Tomorrow” exhibit at the 2017 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
Yet if anybody is up to a task that seems to keep getting bigger as head of Ford Smart Mobility, and which comprises the most important strategic lynchpin of the company’s future, it’s probably Hackett. Consider his track record: over 30 years as the CEO of Steelcase, he made the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based company a major innovator in the commercial furniture business and a lauded employer.
In 2014, Hackett stepped away from Steelcase to take on what arguably was an even bigger job: becoming the interim athletic director at his alma mater, the University of Michigan. In that pressure cooker atmosphere, he had to fire the school’s football coach, Brady Hoke, and landed Wolverine alumnus Jim Harbaugh back to the school as the new head coach, completely re-energizing the legendary gridiron program.
“I go to bed fulfilled these days,” Hackett told brandchannel. “I have had an impact and also fun. And yet I couldn’t wait to come back in 2017.”
brandchannel talked with Hackett about Ford’s mobility vision—and his own.
bc: You were on the Ford board and agreed to step down to take the job of heading mobility services as chairman. When did you think this would be an important area for Ford, especially when Mark Fields initially didn’t emphasize it?
Hackett (right): I sat in the boardroom when he was appointed [CEO in 2014, succeeding Alan Mulally], and I felt strongly that the sands were shifting already.
Look at what’s happened in the last three years, and all the disruption, with data, the cloud and computing. He was keen on that but he didn’t want to come out making the classic error of saying our old approach was going to die. Now it’s One Ford, just like before, serving both ownership and sharing experiences.
bc: Strategically, what’s the direction for Ford Smart Mobility?
Hackett: The siren song in the early days of what mobility might have meant was about deal-chasing and tie-ups with technology companies. Now what matters is for us to control what we’re doing.
bc: How did you end up taking the University of Michigan job … and then the Ford job?
Hackett: My friend A.G. Lafley [two-time former CEO of Procter & Gamble] counseled me that when I retired, I shouldn’t take the first thing that came along in the first year. The Michigan job came seven months later, and I found that he was wise in telling me I needed a few months as a palate cleanser.
The AD role allowed me to get separated from my old job and to take advantage of a transition to the unknown. And what was going to be a two-month stint ended up being 18 months. It wasn’t going to be my next career, but the president asked if I could stay longer. And after [Harbaugh agreed to become the football coach] there was some attractiveness to the job.
bc: How did you end up heading Ford Smart Mobility?
Hackett: It wasn’t in my plan to do something as intense as this after the Michigan position. But when I was at Steelcase, the importance and intensity of the opportunity in big data was beckoning me. I was sharing all of that with [Fields and Ford Executive Chairman William Ford] and they said, “What if you come over and help us?” It surprised me. And it’s such an honor that they asked.
bc: What’s your approach to this opportunity?
Hackett: You have to get ready again for the speed and complexity of a job like this. You can let it drift when you retire. Now I’ve got it back.