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Mulally’s Departure the Worst-Kept Secret in Detroit

Bill Ford offers praise for CEOs old and new.

by on May.01, 2014

Despite an outside search, few expected Ford to turn to anyone but Mark Fields as its next CEO.

It was, arguably, the worst-kept secret in Detroit, but even when Ford issued an early morning news alert, an advisory to attend a session at its suburban headquarters, it wasn’t ready to confirm what almost everyone already knew: CEO Alan Mulally would be retiring, his replacement to be current Ford COO Mark Fields.

That isn’t to say there weren’t a few unknowns that had Detroit’s automotive news corps racing to “Glass House,” as the Ford office tower is known. For one thing, when would the transition take place – and would it result in a shake-up among the rest of Ford’s management team.

In the Know!

In fact, Mulally acknowledged he would be leaving earlier than he had signaled previously, July 1, rather than waiting for the end of the year. But the 53-year-old Fields was getting the job he seemed destined for after being named chief operating officer in late 2012.

“I know this isn’t exactly a well kept secret,” said Ford Chairman Bill Ford Jr., who said he was  pleased that the company could move forward with  a smooth leadership transition.

“Mark has been Alan’s partner every step of the way,” said Ford, who described Mulally as a “Hall of Fame CEO.” I’m going to miss Alan a lot.”

(For more on the breaking news at Ford, Click Here.)

That said, the grandson of company founder Henry Ford said there’s a big man coming to fill the big shoes Mulally is leaving behind.  A 25-year Ford veteran and Harvard MBA, Fields has been the point man for the outgoing CEO’s aggressive turnaround plan. In fact, Fields was one of the key authors of the you-bet-the-company strategy that had the maker mortgage most of its assets – even its Blue Oval logo – to generate enough money to get through the Great Recession without filing for bankruptcy.

“Every job the company’s asked Mark to do he’s done it well,” Chairman Ford buzzed, adding that “I think he’s going to be a great CEO.”

At 68, Alan Mulally has stayed on several years past the typical auto industry retirement age. But few expected him to stay on much longer. Indeed, two years ago, he signaled the likely time of a transition by indicating he would renew his contract through the end of 2014. And the promotion of Fields to COO all but assured he was first in line for the top job.

That said, Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford did reveal that the company did its due diligence, looking outside for a possible alternative for CEO — but it quickly came back to Fields as the very best candidate.

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

As for Mulally, the still boyish looking executive recently withdrew his name from the search for a new Microsoft CEO. But his departure from Ford, after a 45-year career mostly spent with aerospace giant Boeing, doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to retire and turn his attention to his still-competitive tennis game. Since rumors of his impending departure began circulating last month, the next-phase of the guessing game has turned to what job he might take on next. The fact that he was considered a strong contender at Microsoft shows he is still a man in demand.

But for the moment, Mulally used the Thursday morning news conference to spotlight his successor, Fields, calling him “a proven executive. He absolutely treasures the Ford extended enterprises. I have nothing left to teach him,” Mulally said.

That triggered a virtual love fest. “Thank you for leading us this gift of leaving us a transformed Ford,” Fields said.. “You showed us what we can accomplish working together,” he said.

One of the critical messages to come from Ford Thursday was that the management shift would be “seamless” and “orderly.” There will be no mass exodus by the rest of the company’s senior management team, and no major shifts in strategy.

“I don’t plan on making any changes because it is the strongest team,” Fields said, adding  “I am personally committed to retaining the one Ford culture established by Alan, We’re just starting to see the benefits of the ‘One Ford Plan.”

Mulally said he will also retire from the Ford Board of Directors. His departure caps one of the most dramatic periods in the automaker’s history. When Mulally was recruited from Boeing many thought Ford was in the worst shape of all the domestic automakers – and, ironically, it was the company generally viewed as most likely to go bankrupt. Instead, it was General Motors and Chrysler who ultimately survived only by filing Chapter 11 and receiving billions of dollars through a controversial government bailout.

(GM bailout will cost taxpayers more than originally expected. Click Here for the latest.)

“This is really a good time to (go.) Everything is in place for the transition,” said Mulally, noting that planning for an orderly succession has been one of his key objectives over the past eight years. And despite all the speculation about what will come next, he said he really is looking forward to retirement.

(Paul A. Eisenstein contributed to this report.)

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