How Ford’s chief became a tech CEO
Mark Fields swishes around the ice in his highball glass as a journalist fires off a litany of pointed questions. The reporter wants to know: What does the leader of the second-largest automaker in the U.S. think about driverless vehicles? And what about mobile devices? And how about car-sharing services? Oh, and could he expand on the implications of urbanization for the American auto industry?
Requests for technological prophecies have become quotidian events for the 54-year-old leader of Ford Motor (F). As the CEO of a 112-year-old industrial giant, the Diviner of Dearborn is getting used to parrying questions from gaggles of tech reporters — like the ones gathered here at New York City’s opulent Peninsula hotel—rather than from the auto press. As Ford makes the transition to a “mobility company,” Fields answers his inquisitor, “we have to challenge ourselves.” He mentions the Parking Spotter app the company is testing. In the past Ford executives might have said, “ ‘Doing experiments to find parking spaces? That’s not our business,’ ” Fields says. “Well, maybe it should be.”
Fields was in New York to officially unveil the ultra-luxe Lincoln Continental concept car at the New York International Auto Show and quietly mark the nine-month anniversary of his taking the top job at Ford. His predecessor, Alan Mulally, spent eight years turning around a company that had become dysfunctional and depleted. Fields’ mission is not only to continue that momentum but to meet the digital demands of drivers in an industry that’s growing more crowded by the day, with low-cost foreign automakers, upstarts like Tesla (TSLA), and even tech companies like Uber and Google (GOOG). “I originally joined the auto industry because it was the ultimate industrial product and the ultimate consumer product,” Fields recalls. “Now the car has become the ultimate technology product.”
A Ford lifer, he has some of the boyish charm of his predecessor. But Fields, raised in northern New Jersey, is far more direct than Mulally, a Kansan 15 years his senior. As one reporter presses him about the rapid rise of Uber, the on-demand car service, he interjects, “There’s too much broad-brushing about car sharing and Uber taking over the world.” Says Fields: “When you reach a certain life stage—you get kids—you’re not going to walk out of your place and schlep around your two Graco car seats to get the car-sharing service.”
While Fields may crack jokes at Uber’s expense, he’s still aggressively rolling out new technology at Ford. The company recently opened a Silicon Valley research center, and it launched a record number of new products last year, including an overhaul of the country’s bestselling vehicle, the F-Series pickup truck, and a major revision to its telematics system, Sync. Ford’s 2014 profit was $3.19 billion, half of what it was the year before, but Fields says that’s due in part to spending on innovation that will put the company on track for a stronger 2015.
Such confidence notwithstanding, Fields does envy one thing about the Teslas of the world: their startup mentality. “We want people to challenge custom and question tradition. We want them to not take anything for granted,” Fields says of his employees. “When you’re a 100-year-old company, you take things for granted.”
This story is from the May 1, 2015 issue of Fortune magazine.