Ford CEO Hackett Crafts a Bold Vision, Now Must Deliver

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Ford Motor Co. CEO Jim Hackett is revered as a tech-oriented visionary from his days of running office furniture-maker Steelcase, and he’s been putting together big plans for the No. 2 US automaker since Bill Ford Jr. himself installed Hackett at the helm in the spring of 2017.

So far, it’s clear that Hackett’s bold plan for Ford includes bringing the company into a leadership position in two crucial areas of technology that are dictating much of the future of the industry: electric vehicles and autonomous driving. Ford has invested $1 billion, for example, into Argo AI, a new artificial intelligence company, and has announced a new service called the Transportation Mobility Cloud that connects cars to one another and to the broader transportation network. Overall, Hackett has been rapidly plotting an expansion of Ford’s EV lineup to restore its leadership in a tech arena where, a decade ago, Ford was among the leaders.

The core of Hackett’s plan is to make “smart vehicles for a smart world” and remake Ford into a technology-savvy provider of connected cars and transportation solutions, as the Wall Street Journal put it recently.

For example, Hackett recently showed Forbes a prototype of Mach 1, a high-performance, battery-powered SUV inspired by the iconic Ford Mustang, which he had teased at the Detroit auto show in January. “That’s the money shot,” he told the publication, pointing to Mustang-inspired taillights on a sketch of the new performance utility. “That changed my body language when I saw that.”

In addition to a vehicle that bravely hybridizes electric power with the performance chops of the Mustang heritage—in an SUV, of all things—one of the boldest aspects of Hackett’s plan so far is Ford’s move to spend about $1 billion to renovate a big abandoned train station in downtown Detroit and rejuvenate the whole “Corktown” area of the city, partly to stage for future mobility projects and partly to help renovate Motown. The idea is to attract younger workers with the urban vibe—workers who otherwise might decamp for Silicon Valley or the East Coast, and who are going to be the key to making Ford digitally robust in the future.

Hackett also has moved relatively quickly to pare costs at Ford in what he calls a “financial fitness” push and to pull the Band-Aid off Ford’s sedan lineup. The pride of the company several years ago after Ford overhauled its small-car lineup to adjust to $4-a-gallon gasoline, Ford Fusion and Focus now are in the broad category of sedans that are being abandoned by American vehicle buyers in favor of SUVs and trucks.

So Ford will be giving up on its sedans in favor of investments in new utility vehicles and trucks. While it counts on the F-15 pickup truck line—Americas best-selling nameplate—to generate substantial profits to fund new vehicles, Ford also will be bringing out a timely new version of its Ranger mid-size pickup and the large Bronco SUV next year.

Hackett also has continued Ford’s reinvestment in the Lincoln luxury brand, which had been neglected for decades but which, over the past several years, has been a focus of revival for the company with a lineup of new sedans and SUVs and an ongoing marketing campaign starring Matthew McConaughey. Right now, Ford can’t make enough of the hot-selling new version of the hulking Lincoln Navigator SUV, and it’s got plans to introduce an all-new resuscitation of its Aviator mid-size utility vehicle for 2019.

Ford continues to be dogged by a lack of investor confidence—under Hackett and even amid a bull stock market, Ford’s shares have continued to lag even after falling by nearly 40 percent under predecessor Mark Fields—in part because Hackett has taken a while to spell out his vision, and to get tangible results. The company also needs to shore up its shaky position in global markets including Europe, China and South America.

“The consistent message I get from investors is they see Ford trying to do things, but it is taking too long and there aren’t enough specifics,” Evercore Partners auto analyst George Galliers told the Journal. 

Yet Hackett is cool—and resolute. “Corporations tend to reward action over thinking,” Hackett told the publication. “But the truth is … you’ll find the companies that didn’t do the deep thinking and acted quickly have to redo things.”

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