November 25, 2009
The Autoextremists of the Year.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. You’re probably wondering, have we ever officially announced an Autoextremist of The Year? And the answer is no. We have, on occasion, mentioned an Honorary Autoextremist of the Year in our year-end wrap-up issues, but we’ve never made it a big deal.
But this year, it’s different.
We have just witnessed the most tumultuous twelve months in the history of the automobile business in this country, and the constant swirl of news and calamity has not let up even for a minute. It has been a relentless day after day, week after week, month after month slog of bad news piled on top of bad news, starting with the near collapse of this country’s financial system and followed shortly thereafter by the near complete implosion of the domestic automobile business altogether.
And even before that the storm clouds of the looming catastrophe that was conspiring to blow up the domestic automobile business – due to both internal and external forces – were gathering for all to see, played out over an excruciatingly painful decade, ten long years fueled by a lethal cocktail of egregious mediocrity, a steadfast reluctance to face and understand the realities of the exploding, hyper-competitive global economy, and a maniacally strict adherence to an obsolete mindset that would push the domestic auto industry to the brink of oblivion.
But saying all of that, to then watch as a parade of ham-fisted, grandstanding senators and congressmen trip all over themselves in their rush to write off an entire industry – the backbone of what’s left of America’s manufacturing sector – while promoting their own personal and partisan state agendas was almost too much to bear.
It was as if the industrial heart of the country was deemed inconsequential and irrelevant overnight and the sooner we’d all just disappear out of plain sight of the “new” America – a country driven by consumption instead of production, a nation of Shiny Happy People propelled by whimsy and Green wishes instead of even a whiff of reality - the better off we’d all be.
Fortunately, rational thinking and cooler heads prevailed - at least somewhat - and people actually began to understand that turning their collective backs on vast swaths of this nation would ultimately cost everyone.
So deals were made and compromises were reached. And the sickening numbers to bail out what was left of the “Big Three” were bandied about in the billions. And not surprisingly, few American citizens were happy about it.
The rest of the story has been well-documented.
General Motors, an industrial icon that was once the shining beacon of American industrial might was left flat broke by the side of the road. A company that once soared to undreamed of heights was now a steaming hulk of ineptitude, crippled by an endless sequence of bad decisions and an abject refusal to believe that the world had changed, and that their role had changed with it.
And Chrysler, the perennial boom and bust American car company was busted, only this time for good. The only thing that prevented Chrysler from going away completely was the fact that the current administration realized that to take out Chrysler would mean dire consequences for what was left of the domestic automobile industry as a whole, so they struck a deal with the Italian Opportunist, Sergio Marchionne, from Fiat. And now we’re left with a giant “we’ll see” the likes of which has never been seen before. Grandiose, optimistic product plans count for exactly nothing if you can’t make it through the next eight quarters. So yes, Chrysler remains a giant “we’ll see.”
But there’s one American automobile company that not only saw it coming, but made all the right moves in anticipation of what was coming. This company not only went its own way, it pulled itself up by its own boot straps and toughed it out through a combination of painful restructuring steps, gutsy but brilliantly executed financial strategies, and by charting a visionary course fueled by a newly invigorated devotion to the efficacy of the product that would lead them out of the wilderness.
I am, of course, talking about the Ford Motor Company. And there are two men chiefly responsible for where Ford is today, and where it’s going in the future.
Three years ago, with his company’s back against the wall and the fate of his family’s glorious industrial legacy on the line, Executive Chairman William Clay Ford, Jr. made the toughest decision of his life by deciding to bring in someone from the outside to run the company. Someone who could break up the notorious fiefdoms that were rife within Ford, finally putting an end to its paralyzing, tyrannical bureaucracy once and for all. (A bureaucracy that even Ford himself couldn’t slay, by the way.) Someone who could grab the company by its lapels and shake it to its very foundation, because at that point in time the Ford Motor Company was out of time and out of options.
Bill Ford made a sensational pick in Alan Mulally, and it should be pointed out that Bill just didn’t “pick” Alan - he was relentless in his pursuit of him until Alan finally agreed to give it a shot.
Mulally was the gifted Boeing executive with an engineering background who would come to Ford bristling with energy and armed with a plan to launch the car company in a new direction.
Mulally’s Plan for “One Ford” was nothing short of brilliant. Quickly realizing within moments of his arrival that the company needed to get focused and in a hurry, Mulally streamlined the product plan, while making visionary use of Ford’s global resources, setting the company on a new course that would not only yield exceptional products, but do so profitably too. Mulally’s ability to marshal his troops and get everyone on the same page and pulling in the same direction was equally as brilliant.
But don’t be fooled, because Mulally - an immensely likable Kansan with a disarmingly pleasant demeanor - is also a demanding, steely-eyed analyst who can cut to the heart of the matter in an instant and who expects the very best out of every single person in the company. He demands excellence throughout the organization, and he gets it too.
I firmly believe that by the time he’s finished at Ford, Alan Mulally will be considered one of the icons of this industry, on par with the handful of all-time greats who came before him.
The Ford Motor Company now stands alone as the last authentic American car company. It has tremendously competitive products already on the ground and a slew of sensational products on the way. It not only has momentum in the marketplace, there’s a genuine positive buzz around the company that is separating it in this market from the rest, both in the eyes of the consumer and its competitors.
The new reality for the American market is that it will be a competitive jumpball between Ford, Toyota and Honda, with the emerging Hyundai and Kia nipping at their heels. Which GM will show up remains to be seen, but who would have thought that this would be the competitive make-up of the U.S. car market just three short years ago?
Before the accolades get too thick, however, the people of Ford are by no means even close to being finished, because there are a set of daunting challenges still facing the company, and it will take a relentless dedication, an unwavering persistence, a focused consistency and an unyielding discipline to keep moving in the direction they are going.
But I have every confidence that with Alan Mulally at the helm - and the entire outstanding team at Ford behind him - that the Ford Motor Company will be a formidable force to be reckoned with in this business for many, many years to come.
So congratulations to Bill Ford Jr. for his unshakable belief in Ford and his willingness to set aside his ego for the enduring good of the company, and congratulations to Alan Mulally for his brilliant leadership and visionary plan for the future success of the Ford Motor Company.
Our very first Autoextremists of the Year.
Thanks for listening, and we hope you all enjoy a Happy Thanksgiving.
(Courtesy of the Ford Motor Company)
Alan Mulally and Bill Ford at the company's annual meeting in Wilmington, Delaware, on May 14th, 2009.
See another live episode of "Autoline After Hours" hosted by Autoline Detroit's John McElroy, with Peter De Lorenzo and friends this Thursday evening, at 7:00PM EDT at www.autolinedetroit.tv.
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