Ford Motor Co. is expected to soon name its current chief of North America and South America the new chief operating officer, thus all but cementing his position as CEO Alan Mulally's replacement at the auto maker next year.

Mulally, 67, is expected to step down at the end of 2013, according to a report by Bloomberg News that also was the first to report on Fields' likely promotion, which was a topic discussed by Ford's board of directors on September 13.

Fields has technically been vying for the top job with one other insider at Ford--Joe Hinrichs, 45, who is currently head of Ford Asia Pacific. The Ford board, to fulfill due diligence on succession planning, has also looked at other candidates inside and outside the company.

But for at least two years, the job has been Fields' to lose.

Ford has not yet made a formal announcement on Mulally's retirement date, or Fields' promotion. But company sources said it was on the agenda at the meeting this week. There has been much anticipation about Mulally's succession because the former Boeing executive has been so successful in turning Ford around, and is seen as a tough act to follow.

Besides running the territory Ford calls The Americas, which has been the most successful part of Ford's comeback, Fields has previously held the top job at Mazda, as well as Ford of Europe and the company's now-defunct Premium Auto Group, which had included brands Ford has sold--Jaguar, Land Rover, Volvo and Aston Martin. So, he has extensive operational experience in charge of a profit-and-loss.

Fields was the principal architect of Ford's comeback plan that Mulally inherited in 2006 and built upon. He also has been what many Ford watchers would call a very professional face on Ford. He is known to be close to Ford chairman Bill Ford.

How has he done with his territory of responsibility? In 2011, Ford North America reported a pre-tax operating profit of $6.2 billion, up from $5.4 billion a year ago. South America earned $861 million in ore-tax profit in 2011, down from $ 1 billion the year earlier.

Bleeding Ford Blue

Lands-End-catalog good looks and very fit from frequent work-outs, Fields can look like an actor cast as a CEO, which can make people inside and outside the company doubt his grit and ability to relate to workers on the line, a necessity in the car business. "There is much more to Mark than his critics have given him credit for," says one Ford high-ranking executive. "He has learned a lot under Mulally about how to lead people and how to get people to follow."

Fields has not always been a happy warrior at Ford. In a previous interview with AOL Autos, Bill Ford told us that Fields was among those executives unhappy about Mulally's appointment as CEO in September 2006. Bill Ford gave up his CEO title to the former Boeing executive, and several executives who believed they were in line for the job walked into his office to grouse. "I told Mark that day that working for Alan would make him a much better CEO when the time came," Ford told AOL Autos.

Indeed, Mulally is widely credited with bringing an extraordinary level of operational discipline to the company's executive committee, forcing senior managers to be accountable to a single plan. Prior to his arrival, Ford operated in competitive fiefdoms that often undercut one another. Fields will benefit enormously from continuing the new system. Without Mulally, it probably never would have been driven into the culture and operations.

Fields has also not always been a favorite of dealers or the automotive media covering Ford, both camps having viewed him as too flashy--an outsider who had come to Ford from outside the auto industry--when he returned to Dearborn headquarters after stints in Europe and Asia. Magazine profiles on Fields often mentioned his mullet haircut that he has since tamed now that he is beyond 50.

In recent years, and especially since Mulally took over, Fields has demonstrated both grit, work ethic and a "bleed blue" attitude when it comes to Ford. When Ford was working its way through the financial meltdown in 2008 and 2009, Fields took on then-chief-financial-officer Don Leclair whom he thought was focused too much on nickels and dimes instead of how competitive Ford was going to be against Toyota and Nissan.

At one meeting, reported in Bill Vlasic's Once Upon A Car: The Fall and Resurrection of America's Big Three Automakers, Fields and Leclair even lunged at each other and had to be separated by Bill Ford. Fields' broad view of the industry, and of Ford's place in it, easily allowed him to win that battle and Leclair took early retirement.

Fields also got onto the pubic radar in 2006 when it was reported that the automaker was paying for Fields to fly back and forth to Florida on the weekends to see his family. After several overseas posts, Fields had decided to locate his family, especially his school-age kids, in Florida near extended family for stability rather than Dearborn where he has lived in a condo. The optics of the expense were bad, and his contract was restructured so that Ford was not paying directly for his frequent flights. It was an attempt at a "gotcha" by some members of the media that had a very short shelf life, mainly because Fields has been a very effective executive for Ford.

There will be enormous continuity at Ford by having Fields follow Mulally. And the likelihood is that Ford will keep Hinrichs, a very capable and highly regarded executive, with the most likely scenario being that he follows Fields as chief of the Americas or COO. The company also has James Farley in the role of global marketing chief, making for a solid and proven group steering Ford.

Fields came to Ford in 1989 at age 28 after a stint at IBM. He is married and has two sons. He earned his undergraduate degree at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and an MBA from Harvard. Once a Jersey boy always a Jersey boy, he is a season ticket holder for the New York Giants, though he has told us the Detroit Lions, owned by the Ford family, is his second team.
Unless outside events get in the way, Fields will take over for Mullaly in early 2014.

What will be the chief tasks and challenges of the Fields era?

1. Ford's sales and market share, as well as its profitability, must improve in the face of a strengthening Toyota, Nissan, Hyundai and even Chrysler. One of the issues he must tackle even before taking the top job is the pricing of high volume models. The brand new Fusion sedan will be launched with $1,000 rebates. And there are Focus sedans sitting in dealer lots with sticker prices around $25,000.

2. Ford has a very thin strategy when it comes to luxury and premium vehicles. The company has committed to a new round of investment in the Lincoln brand when few independent voices believe the brand can be made viable against brands like BMW, Lexus or even cross-town rival Cadillac. There is no identifiable executive "in charge of Lincoln." Fields would do better winding Lincoln down, and starting from scratch as Toyota did with Lexus.

3. He must drive greater discipline into product development and design to improve Ford's batting average on new models. The Ford Taurus, Ford Flex, Lincoln MKT and Lincoln MKS have all been marketplace duds. Marketing launches of vehicles have been un-even, with huge victories on Ford Fiesta, Ford Explorer and Escape, but losses on products like Flex and Lincoln. He also must sort out Ford's move to high-tech interiors that have been heavily criticized by Consumer Reports and driven down quality ratings.

4. Fields must accelerate Ford's foray into China where it lagged its competitors. And he must aggressively restructure Ford Europe in the face of flagging economies overseas. Having run Ford Europe for a time, Fields has strong opinions and skills about how Europe shield be run, reformed and resized for better profits.

5. Fields will have to manage Ford's anemic share price upward. It has languished between $10.00 and $12.00 for two years, while the broader stock market has surged. Wall Street likes Mulally as CEO, but not enough to move the share price up so long as these other bedrock issues remain unresolved.

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