Insight: Ford 'lifers' get second chance as CEO readies exit

Mon Dec 16, 2013 12:15pm EST
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By Deepa Seetharaman

DETROIT (Reuters) - Every Wednesday, Ford Motor Co's (F.N: Quote) top executives gather before sunrise to work through some of the company's most vexing problems. Notably absent is Chief Executive Alan Mulally.

The 2-1/2-hour meetings, which mainly focus on vehicle quality issues, were started by Mark Fields after he was appointed chief operating officer a year ago - a clear sign that a changing of the guard is under way at the No. 2 U.S. automaker.

Mulally, 68, is a top contender to lead Microsoft Corp (MSFT.O: Quote), according to sources familiar with the software company. But regardless of whether he gets that job, he is unlikely to stay at Ford through 2014, two people close to the automaker said.

The view from inside Ford, and of people close to the company, is that the management team Mulally groomed is now ready for his exit. Fields, 52, is widely expected to take over as CEO.

"Collectively we have helped change the culture - it's not just relegated to one particular individual," Fields told reporters in September. "It's really about all of us looking to build on the things over the years that have made our culture so strong."

After more than seven years at Ford's helm, Mulally is closely identified with the company's ability to avoid the 2009 federal bailouts needed to save General Motors Co (GM.N: Quote) and Chrysler, now controlled by Fiat Spa FIA.MI.

The Kansas native's "One Ford" strategy connected Ford's once-disparate business units to achieve economies of scale and boost profit. He also overhauled Ford's once-toxic culture to create one based on collaboration and disclosure.

Yet the challenges ahead for Ford are still significant, analysts said. The company's premium brand, Lincoln, is struggling. Quality problems in North America have knocked the Ford brand to near the bottom of reliability surveys from Consumer Reports and J.D. Power & Associates. Ford also is still catching up to rivals in Asia.   Continued...

Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally attends a gathering with members of the media at the Ford Conference Center in Dearborn, Michigan December 12, 2013. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook