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Ford CEO Alan Mulally shines the hood of a Ford Focus. (HO)
Ford CEO Alan Mulally shines the hood of a Ford Focus. (HO)

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A deadbeat no more, Ford must keep focus Add to ...

Ford is finally shaking off the last vestiges of its status as a deadbeat company. It has been five-and-a-half years since chairman Bill Ford and his relatives, who between them control 40 per cent of the eponymous auto maker’s voting stock, agreed to hock virtually all the company’s assets to raise enough cash to fund its turnaround. Now Moody’s has helped bring that painful era to an end.

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The rating firm decided on Tuesday to bump Ford’s credit rating back up to investment grade, a month after rival Fitch Ratings did so. That makes two out of three big raters, so that’s enough to allow the Motown manufacturer finally to reclaim its most prized possession from the fallen angel pawnshop: the blue oval trademark.

In fairness, it has been almost three years since there was any danger of Ford failing to get it back. Chief executive officer Alan Mulally’s plan to overhaul the company started bearing fruit in 2009 just as rivals Chrysler and General Motors were forced into the ignominy of a government-funded bankruptcy.

Since then, Mr. Mulally has overseen big cuts in costs and debt, all the while holding onto the bulk of recent market share gains. He has turned Ford’s indebtedness into a net $9.3-billion (U.S.) of cash in the bank, and the company has cranked out its best earnings in years. Typically, markets recognized the improvement before the rating agencies did: Ford’s debt has traded at or close to investment-grade levels for a while.

The next trick will be for executives to keep their focus. For now, there are still several issues that need fixing. For example, Ford’s European division is losing money and company pension plans ended 2011 underfunded by $15-billion. But Mr. Mulally, who turns 67 this year, has now achieved as good a turnaround as anyone could reasonably have been expected of him when he was hired in 2006, so the chances of there being someone new at the wheel in the next year or so have increased.

All that cash in the bank, with more rolling in, could prove tempting for a new boss eager to make his or her mark on the firm. But with Bill Ford likely to remain as chairman, a significant change of course looks unlikely. After the pain of the past decade, a steady strategy is for the best. Ford can still make quite a bit more of its new, investment-grade wheels before it needs to worry about switching to a new model.

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