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Retiring Ford CEO Alan Mulally poses with the 2015 remake of the Mustang.

Promising an “orderly succession,” Ford today confirmed recent, widespread rumors that CEO Alan Mulally would be retiring, his successor to be the maker’s current Chief Operating Officer Mark Fields.

A former Boeing sensior executive, Mulally has won widespread praise during his eight-years at “Glass House,” Ford’s headquarters in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn. His One Ford strategy has been credited with helping the once-struggling automaker avoid the bankruptcy filings forced on cross-town rivals General Motors and Ford during the depths of the nation’s Great Recession. Fields, in turn, has been seen as the man that helped put Mulally’s strategy in play.

From the first day we discussed Ford’s transformation eight years ago, Alan and I agreed that developing the next generation of leaders and ensuring an orderly CEO succession were among our highest priorities,” Executive Chairman Bill Ford – great-grandson of company founder Henry Ford — said. “Mark has transformed several of our operations around the world into much stronger businesses during his 25 years at Ford. Now, Mark is ready to lead our company into the future as CEO.”

Ford's new CEO Mark Fields delivering the keynote address at the NY Auto Show last month.

Mulally, at 68, has stayed on longer than many originally expected at Ford, and he only recently pulled out of the search to find a new chief executive for software giant Microsoft. But he had only agreed to stay on with Ford through the end of 2014, and now sets his retirement date as July 1.

(Ford Q1 earnings tumble 40%. Click Herefor more.)

In many ways, the 53-year-old Fields was already stepping into the CEO role since being named chief operating officer 18 months ago – Mulally, at the time, saying he wanted to step back into a more strategically-oriented role, turning daily business details over to his protégé.

That included managing the regular Thursday management meetings in which critical corporate issues were put on the table. Such meetings actually took place prior to Mulally’s arrival, but in the earlier years, in Ford’s traditionally politicized culture, it was the norm for executives to reveal little about the problems they might be facing. Under pressure from the then-new CEO, Fields was first to raise his hand, reveal problems with a critical new product launch, and ask for help. It became  defining moment for both men – and for Ford.

Mulally went on to implement a new strategy, One Ford, that shifted the company away from operating as a network of near-autonomous regional fiefdoms into a truly global enterprise. Products since have been developed with a goal of marketing them worldwide, even specialty models like the new 2015 Ford Mustang, something credited with increasing Ford’s global sales and reducing costs.

Though it experienced a sharp decline in first-quarter 2014 earnings, Ford under Mulally has now rolled up 19 consecutive quarterly profits – and it met one of the outgoing CEO’s most cherished objectives last year, regaining its investment grade credit rating.

The Ford that Fields will shortly take over will have its share of challenges, though it appears that one of the biggest uncertainties – a possible exodus by other senior managers passed over for the CEO post – has been avoided.

But Ford will have to get through a 2014 that will bring with it more new product launches than at any time in more than half a century – 23 worldwide and 16 in the U.S. alone. It needs to avoid the sort of roll-out problems that plagued it in recent years, notably the series of recalls that quickly followed the 2012 debuts of the Ford Fusion and Escape models.

(Click Hereto check out Ford’s new Transit van.)

The maker must also continue working on its European business plan, which includes a number of plant closings designed to bring it back into the black after years of punishing losses.

Then there’s China. Ford was slow to get into the booming market, though it has recently been posting some of the largest sales gains there. Its Focus model is currently China’s best-selling nameplate. Meanwhile, Ford officially launched its long-struggling Lincoln brand into China at the Beijing Motor Show last month. Officials are hoping that move can save Lincoln and have suggested China could soon become the brand’s largest national market within a few years.

(Lincoln looks East – but can China save an American icon? Click Herefor the story.)

Pointing to the achievements of his mentor, Fields said, “My commitment is to build on that success by accelerating our pace of progress. All of us at Ford are committed to delivering even more of the great products and innovations that will deliver growth and define our company going forward.”

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