American Icon

American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company by Bryce G. Hoffman has been on my reading list for quite some time, particularly for the high rating this book had received and my interest in cars. I finally had a chance to read it and despite the high expectations I had of this book, it exceeded them both in terms of content and delivery.

Below are the highlights from this book.

The backdrop of the american car industry in late 20th century:

Ford may have been the company that put the world on wheels, invented the moving assembly line, and created the industrial middle class, but its glory days were long past. Together with General Motors Corporation and Chrysler Corporation, it had been a powerful engine of prosperity in postwar America…That era of easy profit created a culture of entitlement in Detroit that afflicted management and labor alike – inflating salaries, wages, and benefits until they became the envy of the world. Success was viewed as a birthright, not something that had to be fought for and won. As the Big Three’s share of the market had shrunk, they had not. At least not fast enough. They all had too many factories, too many workers, and too many dealers. Generous union contracts negotiated in better times had created enormous legacy costs that their foreign rivals did not have to bear. And none of the American companies had the stomach for the radical reforms that were now necessary just to stay in business. Wall Street had begun a deathwatch, waiting to see which of the Big Three would fail first. Most of the money was on Ford, which had become infamous for lackluster designs, poor quality, and managerial infighting.

Ford itself had some additional challenges of its own:

While many of Ford Motor Company’s problems were shared by the rest of Detroit, the Dearborn automaker also faced some challenges all its own. Ford’s woes had not begun with of the Japanese in the 1960s or the oil crises of the 1970s. The company had been struggling with itself since Henry Ford started it on June 16,1903. It invested massively in game-changing products, and then did nothing to keep them competitive. It allowed cults of personality to form around larger-than-life leaders, but drove away the talent needed to support them. And it allowed a caustic corporate culture to eat away at the company from the inside. These were birth defects that could be traced back to the automaker’s earliest days. Henry Ford liked to boast that he had created the modern world. In many ways, he had. But he also created a company that was its own worst enemy.

Bill Ford who was CEO knew it was time for a big change in leadership of the company was to be saved:

Hockaday commended Ford for having the self-awareness and the lack of ego to admit that, but he gently suggested that Ford needed something more than a new COO. Bill agreed: The time had come to find a CEO who could save Ford from itself…Though he knew it was coming, Hockaday thought Bill Ford’s speech to the directors was one of the most moving he had ever heard in a boardroom. No one ascends to the top of a major corporation without a healthy ego, but those in the automobile industry we’re oversized even by Fortune 500 standards. It took a big man to admit that he could not save his company, particularly when his name was on the side of the building. In other rooms in Detroit, other CEOs were adamantly refusing? to admit defeat. They would stubbornly cling to power and take their companies down with them. Bill Ford cared too much about Ford to let that happen in Dearborn.

Alan Mulally was the man that was chosen for the task:

The Seattle Times called him “Mr. Nice Guy.” Mulally’s lack of pre-tension was evident in his dealings with other people. At formal events, he showed little interest in the rich and powerful, preferring to mingle with those less interested in comparing resumes or other measurables. He asked more questions than he answered and seemed genuinely interested in what people had to say, be they world leader or waitresses. Mulally made a point of remembering something about everyone he met and would often astonish underlings by recalling some scrap of information about their lives they had shared with him months or years before. He was also big on hugs, and had even been known to plant pecks on the cheeks of both men and women when he was in a particularly exuberant mood. All of this made Mulally adored by subordinates. It also kept his rivals off balance. They could never quite figure out how much of it was an act. And Mulally liked to keep it that way.

Despite being and unconventional choice:

The conventional wisdom in Detroit held that outsiders were incapable of understanding the complexities of the automobile business. Bill Ford’s decision to hire an aeronautical engineer to save his car company spawned plenty of jokes during those early weeks. There was a lot of snickering about flying cars and the return of tail fins. “He has no idea how we do things in Detroit” was the common refrain at Ford’s crosstown rivals, as well as within Ford itself And Mulally knew it. They’re right. I don’t know how they do things in Detroit, he thought. But I do know it doesn’t work.

Mulally had a unique management style that he shared and communicated with his team from the beginning:

Mulally called their attention to a list of rules posted on the wall. There were ten of them: • People first • Everyone is included • Compelling vision • Clear performance goals • One plan • Facts and data • Propose a plan, “find-a-way” attitude • Respect, listen, help, and appreciate each other • Emotional resilience … trust the process • Have fun … enjoy the journey and each other

Listening was a key part of his philosophy, even from his competitors:

As he was leaving, Mulally told Wagoner he would like to be able to call him in the future if he had more questions. He was just trying to be polite, but Wagoner took it as another sign of weakness. He would later claim publicly that Mulally had sought his help as he e struggled to understand the industry in those early days. The truth was, Wagoner had been played so well he did not even notice.

He had a clear vision, even for what Ford would look like after he leaves – his legacy:

The Plan…Mulally also looked to Ford’s past for inspiration…Alan Legacy: • Clear, compelling vision going forward •Survive the perfect Storm—commodities, oil, credit, CO2, safety, UAW • Develop a profitable growth plan, global products and product Strategy • A skilled and motivated team • Reliable ongoing BPR process • A leader and leadership team with “One Ford” vision implementation tenacity

An example of, luck favors the prepared mind:

Did Ford see the credit crisis coming? Certainly not the full magnitude of it. But it is clear that Ford knew the game was changing and had the foresight to get as much cash as it could before it was too late. Other automakers would not prove so prescient. In the end, they would have to borrow their money not from the big Wall Street banks, but from the American people. Ford’s financing deal would allow it to survive without a government bailout. If Bill Ford had not convinced his family to stake everything, the Fords likely would have lost control of the company entirely. A few months later, such a deal would have been impossible for any American automaker. A year later, even the most profitable companies in the world would have been unable to borrow half that amount.

Alan never lost touch with what the business was really about – engaging with customers and making a difference in their lives through vehicles:

It would not be the last time Mulally played at being a car sales man. This was a way for him to see firsthand how Ford’s customers approached its cars and trucks. But it also generated a huge amount of goodwill for the company. Everybody who met Mulally walked away an ambassador for Ford. He had that effect on people.

He knew that a successful relationship with the Union of Automotive Workers was paramount to success and worked hard on nurturing it:

Even in the face of this increasing animosity between the UAW and Detroit’s Big Three, Ford managed to maintain a better relationship with the union. Ford family members often dealt directly with UAW officials, even during the period when there was no Ford in the chairman’s seat. None of the company’s factories had been struck since 1976. But even Ford could not get the concessions it needed to be competitive with the growing number of foreign transplants setting up factories of their own in the southern United States…Mulally took a step toward Gettelfinger and looked him in the eye. “We want to prove that we can do this in America,” he said solemnly. “Ron, will you hold hands with me.? We’ll do this together, and we’ll go out there and say we did this together. We’re going to be able to make products in America and make them profitably and successfully. Or, we’ll just go out there and tell everybody it was too hard. We just couldn’t do it. It’s up to you.” Gettelfinger did not hesitate.

Alan kept refining his vision and rallying the company around it:

Beneath the first, Mulally spelled out his vision for the company: People working together as a lean, global enterprise for automotive leadership, as measured by: Customer, Employee, Dealer, Investor, Supplier, Union/Council, and Community Satisfaction

During the crisis, it was not just about being defensive, it was about the offense – accelerating the transformation with the new product lines:

Accelerating Kuzak’s product time line would require a heroic effort on the part of Ford’s designers and engineers. It would also require other departments to cut deeper. It was a testament to how much Mulally had changed the culture inside the Glass House that they were willing to do so. Fields expressed this new spirit in a speech to his troops that summer “I know this is really a kick in the teeth, but this is not Ford Motor Company not delivering—this is the external environment. This is an egalitarian knock to the industry, and what’s going to separate the winners from the losers is how those companies approach this setback,” he said. “It’s easy to be a victim. It’s harder to say we’re going to take this and we’re going to make lemonade out of lemons.”

While Ford was in a better position than some of its competitors during the financial crisis their were some inter-dependencies within the industry that it had to actively manage with them and with the government:

Both Toyota and Honda were just as concerned as Ford about the impact that the failure of CM or Chrysler could have on their suppliers, as well as about the growing number of parts producers who were already in trouble. When they heard about Ford’s effort to support its suppliers, they wanted in. So Brown forged a tripartite alliance with Ford’s archrivals to prevent a cascading collapse of the entire automobile industry.

Ford was now engaged in a delicate balancing act, trying to convince consumers and investors that it was in better shape than its crosstown competitors while at the same time trying to persuade Washington that it was just as deserving of help. When Mulally was asked why Ford needed taxpayer assistance if it was not in dire financial straits, he said Ford would need help if either GM or Chrysler failed. “It’s just prudent to be prepared together. There’s a lot of issues that we’re all dealing with,” he said. “We are very interdependent, and we’re all dependent on the U.S. economy. If any one of us gets in trouble in a big way, then that’s going to have major ramifications for the entire value stream for the suppliers, for the (automakers), for the dealers.”

The strategy of forgoing the bailout paid off for Ford:

Sales remained depressed, but Ford continued to outperform the market and gain share…The board was pleased. The directors had hoped that Ford would get credit for forgoing a bailout, but none of them expected the decision to generate as much goodwill for the company as it did…The decision to pass on a bailout was a big part of that, but it would have mattered little if the company’s showrooms were still filled with the same old boring products. Fortunately for Ford, transports stacked with new vehicles like the redesigned Fusion and Fusion Hybrid were pulling into dealer lots just as customers decided that the company was worth another look. Once again. Ford’s timing was perfect.

Alan throughout this entire period ensured the team maintained focus on improving Ford’s financials:

Mulally’s focus was now on improving Ford’s balance sheet and beginning the long, slow march out of junk bond territory. The terms of Ford’s massive 2006 financing deal stipulated that all the assets it had pledged to secure those loans would be released once its revolving line of credit was paid off and two of the three major agencies restored the company’s credit rating to investment grade.

For those who down-play Ford’s come back:

There are some who will point to the loans Ford received from the U.S. Department of Energy and the money it borrowed from the U.S. Federal Reserve and say the company did take taxpayer dollars. This is true, but in this sense, so did the rest of the major automakers —and not just the American companies. Japanese and German manufacturers benefited from these programs as well, in addition to receiving support from their own governments. But these were loan programs set up to address systemic problems beyond these companies’ control.

And Alan’s key role in that:

While many of the pieces of Ford’s turnaround were already in place, the company’s own culture was preventing them from being implemented with the speed and scope necessary to effect real change…But Ford would have run out of time and money before it got to where it needed to be if Mulally had not been there to put the pedal to the metal…Mulally ripped off the bandage, cauterized the wound, and cured the disease. Only an outsider could do that. But not just any outsider: It had to be someone who understood the complexities of global manufacturing, labor relations, and heavily engineered products…His disciplined approach cut through the company’s caustic culture and forced everyone to march in the same direction…He taught the other executives how to make decisions based on data instead of boardroom politics. And once he had, most of the decisions that saved Ford were made by the team as a whole.

The keys to Alan’s success in his words:

“What I have learned is the power of a compelling vision, a comprehensive strategy, a relentless implementation process, and talented people working together based on those commitments,” he told me during our last interview for this book, in May 2011. “We laid out a plan, and for four and a half years, we have been relentlessly implementing that plan.”…”You’ve got to trust the process. You need to trust and nurture your emotional resilience,”

Another key, was Bill’s – the chairman – unwavering support:

It was not just Bill Ford’s willingness to step aside and make way for Mulally that helped save the company. It was also his unceasing effort to give him the time, the space, and the resources he needed for his revolution to succeed. Without that, Mulally may well have become just another victim of a company and a culture that seemed impervious to change.

A reminder though that a true test of great leadership is the ability of an organization to sustain itself after the leader leaves:

The ultimate test of Mulally’s revolution will be its ability to endure his absence. Boeing has suffered major setbacks since Mulally left Seattle in 2006. Insiders say that is because his successors have failed to maintain the processes Mulally put in place to guarantee success. When asked if the same thing could happen at Ford, Mulally says simply that he has given Ford the tools it needs to prosper. What the company does with them after he retires is beyond his control. Ford’s history is a long list of stunning successes followed by epic failures, of against-all-odds comebacks that turn into retreats back into mediocrity and mismanagement. But there are important differences this time that augur well for Ford’s future.

On a concluding note:

Henry Ford once said, “A business that makes nothing but money is a poor kind of business.” Ford Motor Company has certainly made a great deal of money since Alan Mulally started there in 2006. But it has also made people believe that the highest principles of American enterprise —ingenuity, innovation, and integrity—have not deserted us entirely. In an economic era marked by avarice and greed, Mulally’s Ford has demonstrated that a company can still succeed by building a good product and selling it at a fair price. As the big Wall Street banks tried to hide their mounting failures, Mulally was exposing Ford’s shortcomings and challenging his company to overcome them. Wall Street’s obfuscation and trickery would ultimately drag the entire world into the Great Recession. With Mulally’s relentless determination to succeed. Ford would defy that downturn and once again become an engine of prosperity. From the day he arrived in Dearborn, Mulally said he was fighting for the soul of American manufacturing. If Ford had failed, a little bit of America would have died, too. But Ford did not fail. Under Mulally’s leadership, it showed the entire world that at least one American automaker could pick itself up, shake off the rust, compete with the best in the business, and win.

A highly compelling, highly valuable and recommended read on leadership, management and corporate transformation as well as on the automotive industry.

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