Mark Fields had the look of a future CEO all the way back in the late 1990s, when he was a young 30-something marketing executive – thought to be brashly overconfident by many, and careful not to offend in public or with the press.
I have had hour-long interviews with Fields and come away with absolutely nothing newsworthy on the tape. Nothing. He is a careful leader. And now he’s the next CEO of Ford Motor Co. as of July 1.
He’s earned it. Back in the 1990s, Fields was the vice-president of marketing at Mazda Motor, then controlled by Ford. Fields looked to be on track for a three-year stint in that job when out of the blue in 2000, at age 39, he was promoted to the Mazda CEO job after his boss left unexpectedly for “personal” reasons. Atop Mazda, Fields orchestrated a massive overhaul of a company in crisis. Surely he first learned crisis management at Mazda.
Mazda served as a training ground for quite a number of senior Ford executives – including current Ford of Europe CEO Steve Odell, and Joe Bakaj, now head of product development at Ford of Europe. Odell was at one time Mazda’s global marketing boss and Bakaj Mazda’s head of product development. Ford’s last chief financial officer was also a Mazda CEO and so on and so on.
So while outgoing CEO Alan Mulally deservedly gets plenty of credit for leading Ford’s turnaround since 2006, he’s not done it simply by transplanting the Boeing culture from which he came into Ford. No, the leadership team that turned Ford from losses totalling $30.1-billion from 2006-2008 to profits of $42.3-billion over the last five years learned plenty about crisis management and teamwork at tiny Mazda, where there is no room for mistakes and out-sized egos.
Fields will be Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford’s next CEO in great measure thanks to his Mazda experience. He’s also been a key member of the leadership group at Ford right from the day Mulally came on board. As head of Ford’s North American operations, he led a major restructuring that today has Ford in North America pumping out massive profits.
He also knows Europe. For a short time he was head of Ford’s now-defunct Premier Automotive Group, which included since sold Volvo, Aston Martin, Jaguar and Land Rover. He’s worked in South America and he knows Asia, thanks to Mazda. Ford is a global car company, therefore his global experience is immensely important.
Finally, Fields has learned humility. Early in his tenure as head of Ford in North America, news came out that he was using the corporate jet to commute from Dearborn to the family home in Florida on an almost-weekly basis. This at a time when Ford was losing billions and losing jobs in a great downsizing. Clearly embarrassed by this revelation, he immediately stopped the corporate flyovers to Florida and quietly went back to work. No complaints. No moaning about the intrusive press.
Many, including me, did not expect Fields to survive under the new Mulally regime; he seemed too slick and too arrogant for Mulally who exudes modesty and simplicity. We were wrong. Fields not only survived, but thrived. At 53, he’s the new CEO and deservedly so.
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