September 27, 2020

Ford Names an Operating Officer Who Is Seen as a Possible New Chief

The management changes solidified a closely watched succession race at Ford, the nation’s second-largest automaker, and reassured investors concerned about a premature departure by Mr. Mulally.

The decision to promote Mr. Fields was made by Ford’s board at its Oct. 19 meeting and was announced Thursday by Mr. Mulally and William C. Ford Jr., the company’s executive chairman.

In addition to naming Mr. Fields as chief operating officer, the company also said its Asia chief, Joe Hinrichs, would take over as president of the Americas division, which has been providing the bulk of Ford’s profit this year.

Mr. Mulally said he would assume a more strategic role at Ford and turn daily operations totally over to Mr. Fields, who he said had excelled during his seven years overseeing the all-important Americas division.

“The really key message today is that Mark is going to take responsibility for leading the business plan reviews of the whole company,” Mr. Mulally said. “I’m going to step back from that.”

By elevating Mr. Fields, the board gave him a running start to ultimately succeed Mr. Mulally. But some industry analysts say they believe the competition for the top job is not over.

Mr. Ford would not comment on whether Mr. Fields was in line to be the next chief executive. But he said it was even more likely now that Mr. Mulally’s successor would come from inside the company.

“I’ve said in the past I prefer it comes from inside, and I still see that,” Mr. Ford said.

It was Mr. Ford who reached outside the auto industry in 2006 to hire Mr. Mulally, who was then a senior executive at Boeing. Despite questions about his inexperience in the car business, Mr. Mulally transformed Ford from an unprofitable, regionally divided company into one of the most efficient and profitable automakers in the world.

This week, Ford reported third-quarter net income of $1.63 billion, its 13th consecutive profitable quarter. The company also recently announced a major reorganization of its European operations and an acceleration of investments in its Asian division.

Mr. Mulally said he expected to focus on new products, technology and strategic initiatives to further globalize Ford’s vehicle development and marketing.

He said he was asked to stay as chief executive for at least two more years by the board and Mr. Ford.

Mr. Ford reiterated earlier statements that he would prefer to keep Mr. Mulally at Ford indefinitely but that promoting other executives was important to the development of the overall management team.

“The strength of our people and stability of our team are competitive advantages for Ford,” Mr. Ford said. “We are fortunate to have Alan’s continued leadership as well as talented senior leaders throughout our company who are developing and working together and delivering our plan.”

Mr. Fields’s promotion to the chief operating officer position, which has been vacant for several years, is effective Dec. 1. Mr. Hinrichs will succeed him in the Americas job, and the Asia position will be filled by David Schoch, who currently leads Ford’s China operations.

Two other executives also were given enhanced job titles and responsibilities. Stephen Odell, head of European operations, was named an executive vice president and given added oversight of Ford’s business in Africa and the Middle East.

James Farley, head of global sales and marketing, was also promoted to executive vice president and assigned the additional duty of leading the revitalization of the Lincoln luxury brand.

The challenge for Mr. Mulally will be in ceding direct control of main subordinates to Mr. Fields, while still steering Ford through its European restructuring and Asian expansion.

“I have not had a C.O.O. before, but I am really looking forward to nurturing and supporting Mark and his team,” Mr. Mulally said.

Mr. Fields was not available for comment on Thursday. In a recent interview, he refused to talk about his future prospects at Ford or what changes he might implement if he was promoted.

Analysts said he has risen in Ford because of his discipline on costs and expertise in the production and delivery of new vehicles. “Mark Fields earned his stripes both on the cost side and the revenue side,” said Michelle Krebs, an analyst with the auto research site

But one analyst said Mr. Fields’s new role did not preclude the Ford board from selecting Mr. Hinrichs or another member of the revamped team to become the next chief executive.

“The next Ford C.E.O. is truly up for grabs,” Adam Jonas of Morgan Stanley wrote in a research note. “We believe Ford is keeping its options open.”

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