There was a time when some folks in Detroit were convinced Lee Iacocca's last name was really an acronym for: I Am Chairman of Chrysler Corp. Always. Indeed, it took a shove from an increasingly frustrated board to finally get Lido to name his successor.
If anything, those on the Ford Motor Co. board of directors are putting CEO Alan Mulally in a bear hug, Chairman Bill Ford suggesting he'd keep the chief executive firmly planted in his office at Glass House until he was 80. For his part, the still-boyish former Boeing executive has said on more than one occasion that despite turning 65, he's not rushing to leave as long as he's having "fun." But as his fifth anniversary in Dearborn approaches it is no surprise that there's plenty of speculation about who might eventually replace Mullaly, if not when.
In decades past, Ford was land of the long knives, where power trumped all, and doing away with your rivals was only slightly less bloody than when the Borgias ruled in Rome. Mulally has made much of instilling a sort of "greater-good" mindset and one of the reasons for the maker's recent success has been that the highly political nature has been toned down a number of notches. Nonetheless, insiders say the jockeying for position has already begun.
So, who would the oddsmakers put their chips down on? Sadly, you can't wager a bet yet in Las Vegas, but we've been speaking with some of the "well-placed" folks often described as "in-the-know," hoping to get their perspectives. And, interestingly, there's quite a bit of consensus on how the CEO candidates stack up.
Notably, most observers believe that who's on top in this dash up the corporate ladder will depend on when Mulally ultimately does move on. Were he to stop having fun – or experience some other debilitating event – in the near-term, the odds-on favorite is Chief Financial Officer Lewis Booth.
"He's the type of guy the troops would give their lives for," said one former high-ranking Ford official still close in touch with the maker. That was a phrase repeated over again, with the insiders pointing to Booth's depth and breadth of knowledge, along with his reputation for protecting his team members while still doing what's best for Ford.
In decades past, Booth might have seemed the natural no matter what, the automaker having a fixation with British nationals in top management. These days that might almost work against some candidates, but not Booth. The issue is one of age, and at 62, most observers believe that if he did step in soon, Booth would be positioned as a short-timer while someone younger was groomed for the spot.
And there, most fingers point to Mark Fields. His resume is the sort that high-level recruiters love. He's headed Ford of Europe, been top dog at Mazda during the period when Ford still held control of its Japanese affiliate. And, during an unusually long tenure as President of the Americas, Fields can point to the home market, one of the most successful turnarounds in automotive history. He has the drive, the TV-friendly presence, and the iron man work ethic the job would require.
While 51-year-old Fields is the odds-on favorite, he's not without flaws, insiders say – invariably asking "this is off-the-record, right?" Fields does not have the financial experience of Booth. And, to be euphemistic, he knew how to play politics with the best of them during the old days and under the old ways at the automaker. "Memories are long at Ford," stressed one skeptic, who questioned whether the Jersey boy would be able to rally the troops and maintain the OneFord mindset that will be Mulally's legacy. The good news is that Mulally is quick to cite Fields as one of the first to buy in on the changes that have reshaped the company.
There's little doubt that when he joined the company, marketing czar Jim Farley was eyeing the succession process. Though he'd spent most of his career at Toyota, the youthful executive "bleeds Ford blue" due to ancient family ties to the company. And he has achieved some more-than-minor miracles propping up sales and market share after decades of decline.
But the cousin of the late comedian Chris Farley can be equally unexpurgated, which doesn't sit well with everyone. He's also got far too limited experience, goes the conventional wisdom, in areas outside marketing and sales, despite an inherent knowledge and love of the business.
There are several other names that will come up in this conversation, including Stephen Odell, another Brit and the head of Ford of Europe. But he's got his hands full on the other side of the pond and doesn't appear in the running, at least not now.
Then there's Joe Hinrichs, at 43 a seeming wild card. But bring his name up and you trigger a surprisingly uniform and positive response. Like Booth, Hinrichs seems to have made surprisingly few enemies during his clamber up the ladder. "He's too young, though," cautions one of the most knowledgeable of our sources, "and they may not want to move him anytime soon." Hinrichs is in the extraordinarily challenging position of playing catch-up in Asia, and China in particular, where a hesitant Ford let rivals like Volkswagen and General Motors get dominant positions.
Leaving Hinrichs overseas, at least for now, would force him to prove he can work magic. And by the time Mulally steps aside might prove the perfect moment to bring the young exec back Stateside to serve as a top lieutenant to a Fields, perhaps. Hinrich is young enough that he could be groomed as Mulally's successor's successor.
One thing the Ford board will have to consider – if for no other reason than due diligence – is whether there's an even more qualified outsider, ala Mulally himself. The challenges of finding someone outside the auto industry are huge but not impossible, as the Boeing exec has proven.
As for industry insiders, Nissan/ Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn rebuffed several prior invitations and Chrysler/ Fiat's Sergio Marchionne doesn't seem likely.
The name most often floated is a former Ford-ite, one-time chief engineer John Krafcik, the much-heralded CEO of Hyundai Motor America. He doesn't deny that he's received calls from several other makers but so far seems ready to stay put. Why? Hyundai insiders point to his successful doctor wife, who doesn't have any interest in leaving sunny California.
Krafcik could, of course, commute. Fields' family is based in Florida. But while the Hyundai boss may be running a company, it's just a U.S. subsidiary and his responsibilities are a fraction of what Krafcik would face in Dearborn. Whether he could convince the board – or nervous investors – he has the skill set to take on more duties is a serious question whatever his reviews.
As Ford proved when it went outside five years ago, the search for a chief executive is never over until it's over. Surprises could and often should be part of the process. But barring some critical, if unforeseen and damning transgression, the bookies in Detroit would likely place their money on Booth in the short-term, Fields, longer-term, with Hinrichs the wild card not to be ignored.