Ford's leaders have watched Mark Fields, a brash Harvard MBA, turn the company's North American business into a profit machine. Now they're eyeing him for CEO.
Fields, 51, was named chief operating officer Thursday, a sign the board favors him for the top job when CEO Alan Mulally eventually retires. Mulally, 67, plans to stay at least through 2014, a decision that reassured Wall Street.
The announcement puts to rest — for now — the swirl of speculation about Ford's succession plans. Investors have been anxious to learn who will replace Mulally, the sunny, charismatic leader who united Ford's fractious management and made the 109-year-old company healthy again. Mulally became Ford's CEO in 2006, when the company was nearly bankrupt, and has presided over three full years of profits.
As COO, Fields will lead day-to-day operations at the world's sixth-largest carmaker, which sold nearly 5.7 million vehicles in 2011 and generated $136 billion in revenue. All of the company's business units — with 70 plants and 164,000 employees worldwide — will report to him. Mulally will guide Ford's long-term strategy and mentor a new management team put in place Thursday.
Ford shares rose 4 cents to close at $11.25, their highest level since May.
Jefferies analyst Peter Nesvold said Fields in unique in having led, or participated in, turnarounds in Europe, South America, Asia and America.
"Fields has grown into a CEO-ready executive," Nesvold said in a note to investors.
Fields has been on the fast track since joining Ford in 1989 as a marketing research analyst. In 2000, he became the youngest CEO ever at a Japanese company when Ford installed him as head of Mazda, which Ford controlled at the time. There, he oversaw the catchy "Zoom Zoom" ad campaign. He was later head of Ford's European division and its luxury brands, which struggled with losses despite his tough medicine, including the closure of a historic Jaguar plant in Britain.
After Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford named Fields head of the Americas in 2005, he developed the company's Way Forward turnaround plan, which called for plant closures, layoffs and new U.S. vehicles — many of them from Europe — to increase sales. But even as the plan was being implemented, Ford was sliding further into debt and Fields and other executives were paralyzed by furious battles over the company's future.
In 2006, Fields was passed over for CEO in favor of Mulally, who refused to tolerate infighting and established weekly meetings for the entire management team. Mulally mortgaged all of Ford's assets for a $23.5 billion loan, then used it to put Fields' Way Forward plan into place. By 2009, the company was profitable again, and it has remained so ever since.
The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born Fields is sometimes chided as a phony, with his polished showmanship, deep tan and wavy mullet that seems to get shorter and more businesslike with each promotion. In 2007, when Ford was hemorrhaging money, the company was embarrassed by news reports that Fields was using the corporate jet to fly from Detroit to his home in Florida on weekends. He gave up the jet, and still won't use it when he becomes COO, the company said Thursday.
Supporters say Fields is an excellent strategist with a deep knowledge of the business. Fields' international experience will be invaluable for Ford's next large restructuring in Europe, where the company plans to close three plants by 2014. He'll also draw on that experience for another key project: Ford's big expansion in Asia.
He impressed Ford's leadership team by working well with Mulally and improving North American operations, which reported a record $2.3 billion pretax profit in the third quarter. Bill Ford said Thursday that Fields has become a better leader under Mulally's tutelage.
"There was a lot of speculation about whether he was capable. To his great credit, he stuck to it, he learned from it and showed tremendous fortitude in grinding through an incredibly difficult process," Bill Ford said.
Bill Ford stopped short of saying Fields would definitely be named CEO when Mulally retires. He said he would prefer Ford's next CEO to come from inside the company, but that he is always looking for talented people both internally and externally.
Ford's board decided on the leadership changes on Oct. 19.
The company also announced:
— Joe Hinrichs, who is now head of Asia Pacific and Africa, will replace Fields as head of the Americas. Hinrichs, who ran Ford's manufacturing operations before taking over Asia, has been frequently mentioned as a successor to Mulally.
— David Schoch, currently chairman of Ford China, will become head of the Asia Pacific region.
— Stephen Odell, group vice president of Europe, adds the Middle East and Africa to his responsibilities. Odell is also considered a candidate to succeed Mulally.
— Jim Farley, head of global marketing, will become the head of Ford's luxury Lincoln brand. Lincoln has been struggling, and Ford is trying to revive it with new products. It's also introducing Lincoln to China in 2014.
Ford hasn't had a COO since 2006, when former President and COO Jim Padilla retired. Mulally said he has never worked with a COO, either at Ford or at Boeing Co., where he spent 36 years before coming to Ford.
"I'm really looking forward to nurturing Mark and supporting this team," Mulally said.