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No detour

6 September 2013 By Antony Currie

Ford’s next chief executive needs a simple road map. Company savior and current boss Alan Mulally plans to stick around until at least the end of next year – though a Reuters report reveals board members may be open to him leaving earlier. Whether he quits sooner or later, though, his successor has to avoid unnecessary diversions.

It’s common, and understandable, for a new chief executive to want to put his or her own stamp on a business. But too much change would almost certainly be a mistake at Ford. Mulally’s focus on core products and a streamlined management process helped the company avoid the government-funded bankruptcy that befell Chrysler and General Motors and roar back after the 2008 crisis.

Now Ford is one of the best performers in the industry. Its restructured North America autos business regularly cranks out pre-tax margins above 10 percent. Analysts expect improvements in Europe and Latin America and growth in China, especially, to bolster the overall company’s margin to 8.6 percent in 2016 from 5.6 percent last year, according to Thomson Reuters data. On Friday, Standard & Poor’s finally bumped Ford up to investment grade.

Meanwhile, net cash is expected to more than double to almost $20 billion in three years. That’s a tempting war chest for an incoming CEO. M&A sprees haven’t worked well in the past for Ford – Volvo, Land Rover and particularly Jaguar sucked both time and money out of the company. But bold bosses often reckon they can do better than their predecessors.

As for the day-to-day running of the company, Mulally’s weekly meetings to discuss problems and successes have become a hallmark of his tenure, fostering both accountability and teamwork. It would be risky if a new broom decided to sweep that aside.

Mark Fields, a 24-year Ford veteran, is the front-runner to succeed Mulally – as chief operating officer, he has been in effective daily control since November anyway. He knows first-hand how acquisitions can go awry and how well his boss’s management style works. That augurs a smooth transition. Be it Fields or someone else who next takes the driving seat, though, reassuring investors that they can expect more cruise control than street racing should be the priority.


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