Ford's incoming CEO Mark Fields with the 2015 Edge.

Officially, Alan Mulally had nearly a week left before his retirement, Mark Fields still in the on-deck circle. But informally, the outgoing Ford Motor Co. CEO handed the baton over to his successor this week during Ford’s annual summer media preview.

The 68-year-old Mulally has spent his last few weeks visiting Ford facilities around the world, “saying thank you,” he explained after dropping in on a morning briefing capped by the preview of the maker’s 2015 Edge crossover.

Even after nearly eight years on the job, with retirement approaching fast, Mulally maintained the boyish exuberance that has been a hallmark of his tenure, reminding everyone he spoke with to “continue supporting Ford” under its new leadership. And, more like a rock star than a traditional business exec, Mulally took time to pose for pictures, signing media badges with a personal note and a big heart.

While the morning belonged to the former Boeing executive, the splashy evening finale was exclusively Mark Fields’, and the event had even more of a celebratory flair. From the moment the 51-year-old from New Jersey walked into the big ballroom at the Ford Performing Arts Center, a multi-use complex across from the maker’s global headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, he was mobbed.  Normally staid journalists scrambled to say hello and take selfies with the next Ford CEO.

(Ford aims to edge out the competition with redesigned 2015 Edge crossover. Click Herefor a closer look.)

Outgoing CEO Alan Mulally (in tie and jacket) with friends and supporters from the Ford team.

Fields was only too happy to accommodate, a beaming smile and a twinkle in his eyes as if he was just fully recognizing that he was about to grab the brass ring on the corporate merry-go-round.

(Ford will let gamers challenge the pro racers as it unveils the next-gen Focus ST. Click Here for more.)

The evening’s scheduled events were repeatedly pushed back as Fields slowly worked his way to the front of the crowd, climbed the stage and began to lay out the foundation of his vision for the company he could spend more than a decade running.

With two guests – including the fashion industry’s Kenneth Cole – Fields made clear that it can’t, and won’t, be business as usual. He outlined the many changes Ford and the auto industry will be facing in the years ahead, something that requires rethinking the very basics of the business.  The automobile is no longer a mere conveyance device, certainly not in the era of connectivity, Fields declared, noting the many other challenges ahead, including what he described as “global gridlock.”

“As a car company, what does that means for us?” he asked.

The same day, analysts at Morgan Stanley had issued a warning that Ford could be in for trouble launching its new aluminum-bodied F-150 pickup, one of the most radical moves a major automaker has made with a mainstream product in years. While Fields’ second-in-command, President of the Americas Joe Hinrichs had insisted the project was “on track,” it may become a symbol of CEO Fields’ management strategy.

In a business where manufacturers have traditionally opted to play it safe, Fields suggested Ford must have, “a willingness to fail quickly and use that knowledge to move forward.”

(Is the F-150 on track? Click Herefor the latest story.)

The launch of the new F-150 is just one of the many challenges the young CEO will inherit from his mentor Mulally. Among them will be:

  • Expanding Ford’s presence in China, the world’s largest car market, where it was a late-comer but has been gaining rapidly on key rivals like General Motors and Volkswagen;
  • The maker is just launching its Lincoln brand at the Beijing Motor Show and, ironically, hopes China could help salvage the struggling U.S. luxury icon;
  • Ford needs to stop hemorrhaging cash in Europe, though its turnaround plan – involving several plant closings – appears to be gaining traction more quickly than anticipated;
  • It needs to resolve recent quality problems, many of them involving its high-tech infotainment system, Sync. But there are signs progress is underway, Ford improving its score significantly in the latest J.D. Power Initial Quality Survey released this month.

Officially, Fields will continue to report to Alan Mulally until July 1st. In practice, he has been handling virtually all day-to-day duties since later 2012, when he was named Chief Operating Officer. Nonetheless, he won’t have his mentor to fall back on, especially when it comes to the sort of longer-term strategic decisions that were a hallmark of Mulally’s eight years in Michigan.

But momentum appears to be moving in the right direction, and if the rousing reception Fields got on Tuesday night was any indication, he’s got plenty of support.

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