No. 1018
October 16, 2019

About The Autoextremist

Peter M. DeLorenzo has been immersed in all things automotive since childhood. Privileged to be an up-close-and-personal witness to the glory days of the U.S. auto industry, DeLorenzo combines that historical legacy with his own 22-year career in automotive marketing and advertising to bring unmatched industry perspectives to the Internet with, which was founded on June 1, 1999. DeLorenzo is known for his incendiary commentaries and laser-accurate analysis of the automobile business, as well as racing and the business of motorsports. Author. Commentator. Influencer. The Consigliere. Minister of the High-Octane Truth. DeLorenzo is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today.

DeLorenzo's latest book is Witch Hunt (Octane Press It is available on Amazon in both hardcover and Kindle formats, as well as on iBookstore. DeLorenzo is also the author of The United States of Toyota.

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By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. For Mark Fields, the end came swiftly. Just three years into his tenure as CEO of the Ford Motor Company he’s out, replaced by 62-year-old Jim Hackett, who was brought into the company a year ago after a lengthy career at Steelcase to run its “Smart Mobility” division, which was supposed to be a center of innovation but so far has paid zero dividends.

Up until then Hackett’s biggest claim to fame – at least around these parts – was that, in an interim role as athletic director at the University of Michigan, he went out and recruited Jim Harbaugh, so there’s that. Hackett seems to have huge favor with Bill Ford and the Ford board of directors, but beyond that, this is a giant ”we’ll see” by any measure.

Fields, an exceedingly smart and capable Ford veteran of 28 years, had an impossible task in following in the footsteps of Alan Mulally. How difficult a task was it? It would be like whoever is going to follow Bill Belichick at the New England Patriots. Mulally was so revered in Dearborn that Bill Ford retained his counsel long after he left the company.

But make no mistake: Fields was responsible for some of the most profitable years in the company’s history. Fueled by the sales juggernaut that is the Ford F-150 and armed with an array of hot-selling crossovers and SUVs, Ford churned out huge profits. But alas, that wasn’t enough for Fields.

Why? Because of the coming autonomous/ride sharing/electric revolution that is swallowing Detroit whole. The Ford Motor Company could feel the icy chill of the swirling winds blowing in from the West Coast, and like GM, started to investigate getting a foothold in Silicon Valley. In fact Bill Ford made regular trips out to The New Center of the Universe, scouring the landscape for ideas, and he spurred Fields on to step up Ford’s involvement “out there.” Which he did, with vigorous urgency.

But - and there are always giant “buts” in anything to do with Silicon Valley - they play a different game out there. Investors and digital speculators throw vast amounts of money around betting on the come, what could happen and what might happen if everything goes well, and that is totally anathema to the Detroit mindset. When Detroit throws money around returns are expected – and soon – because that’s just the way the business rolls and has rolled for more than 100 years.

So there Fields was, making deals with digital and data companies, and throwing massive amounts of dough around in Silicon Valley with results expected, well, sometime down the road. Meanwhile, the giant slowdown for the auto business had started, and even though Ford was still cranking out cars and trucks and racking up big-time sales numbers, signs were ominous that the company was losing traction in the market, and, on top of that, out billions of dollars on new technology that would be neither here nor there anytime soon.

To complicate matters exponentially, since Fields had taken over from Mulally, Ford stock had fallen 40 percent, which, by any measure, was disastrous. This didn’t make the Ford family or the board of directors happy in the least. And lest we forget, Ford is very much a family owned and run company, and if they’re not happy, someone will be assigned blame, and pay dearly.

Now, let’s be clear here, I chalk up half that percentage drop in Ford stock to Wall Street, which makes no bones about the fact that they absolutely despise Detroit and the U.S. auto industry with an unwavering passion, so much so that Wall Street is singularly responsible for running up Tesla stock to such ridiculous heights that even St. Elon himself suggested last week that it was absurd. (As I commented on twitter: “Thanks, Elon, now shut up.”)

This gets right to the heart of the matter here for Fields, for Ford and for Detroit itself. Despite the collective “Detroit” being a mainstay of the industrial fabric of this country and responsible for thousands of jobs, while providing mobility for every purse and purpose, Wall Street and to a larger degree the prevailing winds in the greater media view the U.S. auto industry as Old School and not in a good way, as in a gasping dinosaur struggling for its last breath.

Fair? No. But as I said before, Silicon Valley is The New Center of the Universe, and whatever shape the future of transportation takes – at least to those in the cheap seats boasting a modicum of analytical capability about a business they know nothing about – it will be imagined, conceived and injected with unending wonderfulness by the Titans of Silicon Valley.

So Mark Fields got caught in the unenviable position of trying to make Ford be relevant in two worlds that are 180 degrees apart. And things weren’t going well, at least not well enough to satisfy the Ford family, the board and the miscreants on Wall Street. So now he’s out, and Ford has “a nice guy” with “a different way of looking at things,” according to insiders at the helm. A giant “we’ll see” is the understatement of this or any other year.

But there’s more to this story, much more. Ford – and I’m speaking for all of “Detroit” here – simply doesn’t understand what’s going on. The difference between Detroit and Silicon Valley is that the Titans on the West Coast understand fundamentally that IT rules the frickin’ world now, while the Detroit auto companies see IT as something off “over there” that they have to get to eventually. And this attitude is absolutely killing Ford, and GM, for that matter.

This fundamental question is this: How can Ford transform itself into a “mobility company” when mobility is another word for technology, and when it comes to technology Ford is at least ten years behind the curve? Ford runs IT as a separate business unit, which is what I meant by off “over there.” In other words, the company is nowhere with this mobility thing, despite throwing money around in the tech world like a drunken sailor. And that attitude has decimated Ford and GM (I’m leaving out FCA because, after all, that company is simply a monetary play orchestrated by Marchionne for the Fiat heirs; the future of the transportation business has nothing to do with those carpetbagging mercenaries).

The ugly reality in all of this is that Detroit does not believe that we've shifted to an IT world, and that IT should be the dominant equation going forward if it wants to survive. This just in: The “Todds” (my general term for the IT hordes) have won. And unless and until Detroit gets with the program, we’re at the beginning of a long, downward spiral.

A word about Bill Ford here is merited. Bill has dreams of Ford playing a major role in mobility because his great grandfather put this country on wheels. In fact, Alan Mulally had a giant reproduction of a famous early Ford ad on the wall in his office with the provocative headline: “Opening The Highways To All Mankind.” It is a stunning ad with beautiful illustrated art, and both Alan and Bill took great meaning – and motivation – from it.

But this is a different world now, and the center of the universe isn't Detroit, and it doesn't have anything to do with Ford or GM. It's in Silicon Valley. And the monstrous war chests of cash out there humiliate anything "Detroit" can muster. I’m afraid that Bill Ford’s dreams of playing a major role in mobility are just that, dreams of a simpler time, which ultimately are going nowhere. Instead, Ford has to get real, and it is nowhere even close right now, which is a Mount Rushmore-sized bowl of Not Good.

It’s clear that we live in two worlds now, with "the makers" (Ford and GM), who have to keep building vehicles that people want and need, going up against "the dreamers" who so love what The Future of Mobility is going to be like and are so convinced that it will be wonderful, and wildly profitable. Where does Detroit fit in all of this? Whichever company of the Detroit Two manages the transition to the New Mobility the best will survive, maybe even thrive. And right now Ford is clearly behind (the slide in electric vehicle development for instance, is simply inexcusable, which just adds to the company’s woes). 

So the swirling maelstrom has overwhelmed Ford, triggering a massive reshuffling of executives at the top of the company. But it's also just the beginning of a tumultuous era that threatens to overwhelm Detroit, I’m afraid.

And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.

(Ford image)
The famous 1924 ad for the Ford Motor Company.