Ford CEO Mark Fields’ Daring Attempt at Transformation

January 13, 2016, 4:48 PM UTC
Photograph by Getty Images

Thousands, or perhaps even millions, of business leaders around the world are, in a large sense, going through what Ford (F) CEO Mark Fields is going through. But we could not have a clearer, sharper distillation of the issues they’re all facing than what we get in the person of Fields. A Hollywood script writer couldn’t do better.

Here are the essential elements: He’s running a big, old, successful company in an industry that was arguably the most important one of the 20th century. For decades, his company knew who its competitors were, but now it’s under threat by companies that no one ever dared to imagine were in the car business, and the competitive battlefield is shifting from issues that his company had utterly mastered to issues that were mostly insignificant or unheard-of in the industry.

Fields has to lead this company from the old era into the new while continuing to deliver for his shareholders, the most prominent of which is represented by an executive chairman whose last name is Ford.

As they used to say in Hollywood, a strong scenario, no?

I like what Fields is doing. For an efficient rundown, check our recent coverage here, here, and here. The big picture is that he’s pushing Ford into an unknowable future more enthusiastically than any other big automaker’s chief. He seems to embrace the reality that his business is being fundamentally transformed. For example, he just introduced a free mobile app called FordPass, which helps you borrow and share vehicles while traveling, find and pay for a place to park, schedule service, and more—regardless of whether you’re a Ford customer.

Why would he do that? Because if the app catches on—a big if—think of all that Ford will learn about driver behavior and preferences. Want to lease a car with six friends? Ford just introduced a plan for that. It’s experimenting with Internet-connected bicycles. All this is decidedly weird unless a company is deeply rethinking its business.

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Fields is doing a great deal more, but these examples at least convey his direction. His actions are easy to talk about and hard to do. The transformation he’s attempting requires above all a culture change that’s hugely challenging in a big industrial company. It also requires wise capital allocation; none of this stuff is free, and Fields has to deliver performance today while preparing for the day after tomorrow. He’s doing it: On Tuesday, Ford announced record profits and said it will send shareholders a special dividend of $1 billion on top of its normal dividend.

What makes Fields’ story especially gripping is that we have no idea how it will turn out. He seems to be doing everything right; if only that meant it will work. Real life isn’t like that. The Fields story is made for the movies, but we just don’t know if it will have a Hollywood ending.

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