Jim Hackett outlines his method of leading Ford Motor Co. in an interview with the Detroit Free Press.
Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press
Ford Motor Co. CEO Jim Hackett said he recognizes that his unorthodox management style has disrupted the automaker’s culture and fostered a degree of uncertainty about the company’s future.
But he believes it’s necessary and says it will deliver results.
Hackett is facing mounting pressure from analysts who say he hasn’t articulated a clear turnaround plan.
“I think the process of CEO arrival and impact always is really difficult in the beginning, particularly if you’re bringing new ideas and you’re in the midst of some sort of transformation,” Hackett, who took over as CEO in May 2017, told the USA TODAY Network’s Detroit Free Press in an interview. “I yield to people who tell me, ‘Jim, this is unnerving.’”
But, he added, “I’m happy that I’m pushing people.”
Hackett described himself as “a conductor in an orchestra, getting everyone to play their independent music in a coordinated way.”
Hackett, 63, said he was brought in to say, “Do we have the score right?”
Workers are awaiting key details of a recently announced $11 billion restructuring plan.
Amid this uncertainty, Bob Shanks, chief financial officer since 2012, is retiring, as the Free Press reported Feb. 14.
Hackett became CEO of Ford after a career leading Grand Rapids, Michigan-based office furniture giant Steelcase. Since then, he has consistently confused auto industry analysts and insiders.
Some concepts presented by Hackett can make the “head hurt,” Shanks told the Wall Street Journal in August, adding that he was “eager to understand” and “all in.” Shanks remains CFO as a search is conducted for his successor.
Top executives affirmed internal tension.
“Jim is challenging everybody,” Joe Hinrichs, president of global operations, told the Free Press. “We have disruption taking place.”
No question, Hackett’s style is unique, said Jim Baumbick, vice president of the new enterprise product line management team, who has been with the company 25 years in vehicle development, engineering and design.
“Jim has certainly been focusing on stretching our thinking,” Baumbick said. “He sometimes plays the role of provocateur.”
Julie Lodge-Jarrett, chief talent officer at Ford since October 2017, has worked with three CEOs during her 21 years with the company. And she says the time is right to have Hackett at the helm.
“Different isn’t always embraced as good,” she told the Free Press. “Different can be wrong. Different can be scary. Jim and his background and his style are different than his predecessor.”
Ford needs something different and needs it fast.
The company in 2018 lost money everywhere in the world except North America. Losses included $1 billion in the region that includes China, the world’s largest auto market. Talks with Volkswagen once thought to have the potential to save billions have produced only a narrow agreement.
Hackett said that the company’s operations in China, Europe and South America are all being reworked to be profitable. “More is coming out,” he said.
News about international restructuring will be unveiled soon, Hackett said.
Ford did announce on Feb. 19 that it would close a factory in Brazil and eliminate its heavy commercial truck business along with an estimated 2,700 jobs.
And, he emphasized, VW talks are far from finished. “We’re still working on some things and I’m very optimistic about this alliance. The biggest thing I can report to you is the teams are working really well together,” he said.
Ford executive chairman Bill Ford, 61, has expressed support for Hackett, telling the Free Press in June 2018, “Jim loves what he’s doing. I love having him here. We’ve known each other a long, long time. There’s a great familiarity. Jim has a big brain.”
How long will Hackett stay in the job?
]“You serve at the pleasure of the board and the Ford family,” Hackett said. “Bill and I never put a specific target on it. The encouragement I get from him is unbounded. So, I feel the invitation to be here as long as I need to be … More stability at the top is something I’m trying to help with.”
Outside the company, concern remains high that instability at the top is at the root of Ford’s troubles.
“I don’t think anybody knows what’s going on, even in Ford. Seriously,” said John McElroy, longtime industry observer and host of “Autoline After Hours.”
“Everybody expected that, by this point, there would be clear plans with hard metrics with real numbers behind them. Instead, there’s this very amorphous nondescript talk about smart cities and mobility. The financial community can’t figure out how this is going to pay off for Ford in any way.”
After the company’s latest annual earnings report, Hackett sent a memo to employees that said it was “time to bury the year in a deep grave, grieve over what might have been and become super focused on meeting, and, in fact, exceeding this year’s plan.” The plan calls for doubling profits in 2019.
Hackett went on to write in the two-page memo that the company results were “mediocre.”
The CEO said he becomes mad for a short time but the anger passes quickly.
“I ask myself first not ‘what was wrong with the people I work with’ but rather ‘what was wrong with the approach?’” he said in the two-page, single-spaced memo. He urged people to unleash their collective talents and make things happen.
When asked about his memos, Hackett said he took great pride in writing directly to company employees.
“No one writes it but me,” he said. “It is to let them know how much they mean to me and how intimately I’m thinking about what they’re going through.”
His first boss from 35 years ago, at the company he went on to run, recently texted Hackett, “Don’t let the negative press get you down.” And that reinforced his instincts, he said.
Follow Detroit Free Press reporter Phoebe Wall Howard on Twitter @phoebesaid .
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