Directly praising and indirectly offering sharp criticism of his company's former CEO, Jacques Nasser, Ford Motor Company's new boss made it clear “we lost our focus,” leaving the car maker with plenty of problems.
After winning the formal blessing of Ford's board of directors, William Clay Ford Jr. and his new management team outlined their new goals and strategies Tuesday. And the bottom line will be a return to the basics of building products that come to market on time and that meet today's tough quality standards.
Mr Ford, who now holds the titles of chairman, president and chief executive officer, had strong praise for Nasser on a personal level, insisting that contrary to repeated news reports, “We really have a wonderful relationship, and I won't put that in the past tense.”
But Mr Ford also effectively repudiated his former co-manager, concluding “We've dropped the ball…over the last year or so. As a result, “everything is up for review,” a not-so-veiled reference to the strategies put in place by Nasser over his last three years as CEO. Some operations, such as Ford's foray into e-commerce and recycling could be scaled back or eliminated entirely.
The 44-year-old family heir appeared alongside his new management team, which includes Nick Scheele, the company's new chief operating officer and president of Ford Automotive Operations. An affable British expatriate with a skill for charming his way through tough decisions, Mr Scheele was considered the architect of the turnaround at Ford's long-troubled Jaguar subsidiary. He was overseeing the turnaround of Ford of Europe until being called to Dearborn last summer to help craft a restructuring plan for the company as a whole.
“We're about halfway through developing that restructuring plan,” Mr Scheele said, indicating it should be ready for unveiling within about 30 days.
Suggesting that Ford's tough challenges would be handled in a kinder, gentler fashion, Mr Ford repeatedly stressed that part of the company's problems stem from the way it had tried to 'bulldog' change despite resistance inside and outside the company.
“You can't rebuild the business if you don't have strong partnership,” the new CEO emphasised. “A lot of those are broken or unhealthy. I'm going to spend a lot of my own time rebuilding those relationships” with suppliers, employees and others who must play a part in the automaker's turnaround.
Until recently, Mr Ford had served as a non-executive officer, with little role in day-to-day operations. That began to change three months ago, when the company staged the first in a series of shake-ups. The young executive made it clear he'll be actively involved in management now, communicating with Mr Scheele “hour-by-hour,” though he underscored the fact that the British executive will be the man with the ultimate word over daily operations.
While the ouster of Mr Nasser has been anticipated for some time, it's still generated some concern among those who question whether Bill Ford has enough experience. Mr Scheele's promotion was clearly intended to build support, as was the appointment of long-time Ford board member, Carl Reichardt, to the position of vice chairman and head of financial operations. (Mr Reichert will retain his board seat, while Mr Scheele will now be given one.)
The realities of the world post-September 11 will make it all the more difficult for Ford to achieve its turnaround, Mr Scheele believes.
There's been plenty of speculation about Mr Nasser's longevity at the Ford helm, but in the wake of Tuesday's announcement, there are more questions regarding the timing of his ouster. Mr Ford suggested that up until very recently, both he and Mr Nasser had believed they could make things work without a management shift. But a variety of issues, ranging from criticism within the company to the almost daily news reports created what he called “a cacophony of noise".
“To say we were distracted is an understatement. It was reaching a point of paralysis,” that forced the company to act, Mr Ford said.
With 40% of the Ford Motor Company voting stock, the Ford family has an unusually strong grip on such a large corporation. But Mr Ford insisted that he was taking on his new role for reasons other than “having the right last name.”
Still, there are bound to be questions about his management style until he has a chance to prove his mettle. Mr Ford has won converts over the last three years since being named chairman. He won strong support from employees for his very personal involvement following a fatal explosion at a Ford factory power plant two years ago.
More controversial has been his outspoken environmentalism. He surprised many observers by criticizing the gas-guzzling nature of his company's profitable SUVs. But Mr Ford made it clear he wasn't a wide-eyed “tree-hugger” ready to switch to high-mileage econoboxes.
“The way I envision environmental leadership of this company,” he said, “is through technological application…introducing technology that will allow us to meet and exceed the needs and expectations of our customers.”