Does Mulally Have a Better Idea?

Ford - Bold Moves

My mother called it back in June. Billy Ford wasn’t long for this world. I grew up in the shadow of Detroit, and my family always had connections into the auto industry. She knew the Ford family was restless, and that Billy was in trouble.

The board [family] forced him out. In a way, that’s too bad, since he is a really nice guy, charming, bright, “from good stock” as they used to say. But, clearly, it was long overdue. His departure is kind of sad for the Ford family, yet nothing but good for the company. It also says something about family leadership and the challenge of passing down a Fortune 500 company generation to generation.

Bill Ford was probably doomed from the start.

Bill Ford was probably doomed from the start. If you think about his challenge, it was simply too much to ask of anyone, let alone a nice guy like little Bill. He grew up in this company. He toddled around the offices for years, sat on the laps of key leaders, and cut whatever business teeth he had under the big blue oval logo. Even if he had a great vision of how to overhaul the stodgy old company, it was simply too much to ask someone to shake up a culture that was generations old — generations of his family.

These last few years must have been a nightmare for Bill. He must have been in countless meetings where he said emphatically “we have to change, we have to do things differently, we have to shake off these cobwebs!” [ed: At least let's hope he did (see my post here)] Only to be greeted by layer upon layer of senior management that looked blankly at him, shook their heads marvelling at how little Billy had grown, pinched his cheek and said something like “but that’s not how Henry would’ve done it.” He couldn’t fire some of these people, it would be like firing your uncle. For the family to expect him to make “bold moves” was simply unrealistic.

Mulally and Ford
Alan Mulally and Bill Ford

Now the Ford board has made a super choice: they have selected Alan Mulally, formerly of Boeing, as CEO. I’m a huge Mulally fan, if only from my view outside the company. But throughout his turn at the helm of Boeing’s Commercial Airplane group, he was a sharp, effective leader. And since his promotion opportunities were limited at Boeing by a new top dog (see my post here), moving on makes great sense for him.

I first became familiar with Alan Mulally during the development of the 777 airplane. This was a huge deal in these parts, as it was the chance for the “Lazy B” to shake its old cobwebs and really develop something new and different. Leading up to the launch, Mulally had numerous opportunities to appear in the press, and he always managed to do it with aplomb and to show his leadership skills. At the launch (covered as if it were the Second Coming around here), he outshined the rest of the Boeing leadership as the clear, thoughtful, and talented one of the bunch. Then, the incessant airing of the “Making of…” video on the local PBS station allowed us an even closer look at what a solid leader Alan really is. He had done it, turned around the supertanker, practically in its own boatlength.

Boeing Logo

Recently, Mulally spearheaded the “Dreamliner” project, an even more ambitious plane that is, if leading-edge sales are to be believed, eating Airbus’s lunch. It was a bold move, at a time when Boeing clearly dominated the huge plane market with it’s 747, and a simple tweak to that plane could offer again the largest plane in the world, he bet on moderation. According to friends I have on the 787 (as the Dreamliner is now called) team, and they tell of Mulally passionately arguing of the demise of the monster busses with wings, and the coming move to smaller, more fuel efficient, point-to-point aircraft. And how right he was, as if he could see $4.00 gas from the dust of 9/11. It has been a brilliant move, and the 787 is a bold and beautiful plane. Now all they have to do is ship it (no small feat, I hear the carbon fiber parts aren’t fun to manufacture).

Mulally seems, therefore, perfectly suited to follow through on Ford’s “Bold Moves”. He’s the kind of person who seeks out a vision, and can get a whole, huge corporation behind it. To paraphrase an old Ford advertisement, maybe Mulally does “have a better idea”. The family and shareholders are certainly betting on it