Circling back for a closer look at some breaking news out of Ford this morning, we notice that the shuffled org chart under new CEO Jim Hackett moves Ford's head of product out of that key job and into a bigger one, and installs a new product guy in his place. In the world of car manufacturing, the head of product is a rockstar - or rather, a conductor who leads a years-long symphony of design, engineering, and production to bring a new vehicle to market.
Coincidentally, we ran an analysis this morning pointing out that a relative dearth of new vehicles in the pipeline has Ford playing catchup with GM, so the anointment of a new point person for product is worth a deeper dive.
And it turns out, Ford's new product guy has a lot of interesting products on his résumé.
UP WITH THE OLD
Raj Nair, until now the executive vice president of product development and Ford's chief technical officer, is taking on a new role as president of Ford's North American operations.
According to Ford, Nair, in the role he held since 2012, "had global responsibility for all aspects of the company's design, engineering, research and product development, and played a key role in the company's expansion into emerging mobility opportunities."
There's that word "mobility" again. Note that new CEO Hackett had been running the Smart Mobility division, and on Monday, Bill Ford Jr. said, "Jim Hackett is the right CEO to lead Ford during this transformative period for the auto industry and the broader mobility space." Nair has led projects such as Ford's hybrid offerings, autonomous cars, and the most mobile thing we can think of, the Ford GT.
Before he was executive VP of product, Nair was vice president of engineering for product development - meaning, he oversaw all engineering for Ford and Lincoln vehicles. Most notably, he was part of a drive - the One Ford Plan begun under CEO Alan Mulally - to leverage Ford's global reach by sharing and reusing vehicle platforms and components from one country to the next - a move away from every market around the planet just kind of doing its own thing.
And before that, every job he's had was focused on engineering and products, going back to his mechanical engineering degree from Kettering University in Flint, Mich. (where he's now on the board of trustees).
In other words, someone who may well own a pocket protector is now calling the shots for everything Ford does in the United States, Mexico, and Canada. And that's a great development if you believe a company that builds things should be run by people who have actually built things, not just balanced a spreadsheet.
IN WITH THE NEW
Let's start with the good stuff. Hau Thai-Tang is a true car enthusiast. To wit:
- He was the chief engineer for 2005 Mustang, the clean-sheet redesign that reinvigorated the pony car and returned it to its design roots. He worked with Ford's legendary chief designer J. Mays on the design, development, and launch of the car, even taking control of the budget. He also worked on the Thunderbird reboot and Lincoln LS.
- He was in charge of three familiar letters: SVT, the Special Vehicle Team that brings us Ford's performance vehicles. Thai-Tang also was executive director of Global Product Programs, and director of Advanced Product Creation.
- Just out of college and new to Ford in 1993, he was a race engineer for Nigel Mansell and Mario Andretti on the Newman-Haas CART and IndyCar teams. Says Ford, he "contributed to six victories, 11 podium finishes, and the overall driver's and manufacturer's championships." So, this is a guy who hung out with Paul Newman and Carl Haas, which is more than most of us can say.
Back when the 2005 Mustang launched, Thai-Tang was in the news a lot. He told the Los Angeles Times and NPR that he saw his first Mustang, a white Mach 1, in 1972 in his native Saigon, where it was on display as a morale booster to US troops during the Vietnam War. He was 5 years old.
"It really left a lasting impression on me, with a long wheelbase, a long hood line, very muscular," Thai-Tang says. "It reinforced all those positive images of America. It was big, it was powerful, and it really stood for freedom."
In 1975, Thai-Tang's family escaped Saigon and moved to New York City. He earned engineering degrees from Carnegie-Mellon University and the University of Michigan. After college, he got a job as an engineer with Ford and bought his first car. A Mustang.
Thai-Tang has more than 25 years of experience in product development and has held another one of Nair's old titles, VP of engineering for global product development. And he, too, was a key player in Mulally's One Ford Plan, telling Fortune, "Alan Mulally, with his outsider's perspective, was able to say, 'You guys are a global company but you're not acting like it.'"
In eight years, from 2007 through 2015 when Thai-Tang spoke with Fortune, Ford had shrunk its global vehicles platforms from 27 to just nine, and was on its way to eight.
In 2001, the Automotive Hall of Fame awarded Thai-Tang the Young Leadership and Excellence Award.
His job since 2013 has been group VP of global purchasing, and if you think that sounds, um, boring, Ford points out he has been responsible for how the company spends $100 billion a year. He was named Purchasing Executive of the Year by Automotive Supply Chain Magazine, and Ford credits him with "numerous supplier-partner led innovations and delivered significant material cost savings."
Now on top of that role as global quartermaster, Thai-Tang is Nair's replacement as product guy - the formal title, "executive vice president, product development and purchasing." In that role, Ford says, "he is globally responsible for overseeing all aspects of the company's design, engineering, research and product development, as well as purchasing operations."
Sounds like a big job. Sounds like two big jobs.