Ford CEO Mark Fields has “retired,” pushed out by the board of directors after 28 years with the company. The surprise announcement of Jim Hackett as his replacement offers a clearest indication that while investors and car companies alike obsess over “mobility,” they still have no idea what precisely that means.
Fields, 56, devoted half his life to trying to make Ford successful. He started his career in the company’s marketing arm in California, before moving to help manage their South American operations. He served a stint in Japan, too, helming Mazda while it was under Ford’s control. Over nearly three decades of service, Fields earned a reputation as both a product guy and someone capable of wringing a profit out money-losing parts of the company. And while former CEO Alan Mulally gets a lot of well-deserved credit for keeping Ford out of bankruptcy during the 2008 financial collapse, it was Fields who created the “Way Forward” plan that helped streamline and focus the company.
But almost 10 years after the financial collapse that hobbled Detroit’s Big Three, Ford and other automotive giants face another potential crisis moment. The market is undergoing a radical shift away from selling private, gas-powered cars at dealerships, and toward more shared services and newer technology. For manufacturers accustomed to taking up to eight years to plan, design, build, and market a product, it’s an unnerving transition.
In response, Ford’s crosstown rival General Motors has teamed up with Lyft, and Fiat-Chrysler is providing vehicles for Google’s Waymo, as automakers desperately try to lock in the right partner and the right technology for ridesharing, autonomous cars, and other mobility services they assume will be a part of the future transportation landscape.
Fields, too, recognized the urgency of evolution. “Attitudes regarding vehicles and transportation are changing rapidly,” Fields said in Q&A that Ford hosted just a few months ago. “The world has moved from just owning vehicles to both owning and sharing. This is causing us to think very differently as a company and driving us to rethink our entire business model. It’s not just about how many vehicles we can sell, it’s about what services we can provide as well.”
He also backed that rhetoric with at least some action. But Ford under Fields took a scattershot approach, making big investments with a hazy endgame. Fields put turnaround expert Jim Hackett in charge of Ford Smart Mobility LLC in March 2016, and the company has since acquired shuttle service Chariot, partnered with a bike-sharing company, spent a billion dollars on an AI company, promised to sell robotaxis by 2021, and unsuccessfully tried to convince Austin residents to share leases.
Ultimately, Fields failed to persuade enough people that his idea of “mobility” was the correct one, or that it was even particularly coherent. With so much still uncertain about the future of transportation, messaging matters almost as much as actual technology.
Evidence people didn’t buy the Fields plan? Ford stock lost nearly 40 percent of its value since he became CEO in May 2014. In that same period, Tesla’s market cap rose to $50.6 billion, greater than either Ford or GM, despite Ford’s $151.8 billion in revenue in 2016 dwarfing Tesla’s $2.3 billion.
The big distinction is that rather than providing clear solutions, Ford’s efforts to modernize felt like tactics in search of a strategy. And in a move reminiscent of Silicon Valley, it’s Hackett who will replace Fields as CEO.
The press release announcing the change reads like a bingo card of mobility buzzwords, including a bullet point that brags that the company will modernize “using new tools and techniques to unleash innovation, speed decision making and improve efficiency. This includes increasingly leveraging big data, artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, 3D printing and more.”
If there’s any one takeaway from Ford ditching Fields, it’s that in our current transportation environment, “mobility” isn’t so much a strategy as it is a euphemism for “we have no idea what’s happening next.”
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