SOUTHFIELD, Mich. — Ford Motor Co. has promoted Mark Fields to chief operating officer from president of the Americas, a move that clears the way for him to succeed Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally.
Fields, 51, a 23-year veteran of the automaker, led a transformation of its North American operations from record losses four years ago to record profits this year. His elevation puts him in line to replace Mulally, 67, acclaimed for saving the second-largest U.S. automaker without a federal bailout or bankruptcy. Mulally will remain as president and CEO through 2014, Executive Chairman Bill Ford, 55, said Thursday on the call.
“We are fortunate to have Alan’s continued leadership as well as talented senior leaders throughout our company who are developing and working together and delivering on our plan,”, Bill Ford said in a statement.
Ford’s North American operations, which Fields oversees, have delivered record profits this year while the automaker has lost money overseas. The company earned $6.47 billion in North America in 2012’s first nine months and had an operating profit margin of 11.2 percent in an industry where a 5 percent margin is considered respectable.
“Mark Fields has proved his worth and proved that he has substance,” Rebecca Lindland, a Boston-based analyst for consultant IHS Automotive, said in September. “This is somebody who has been in the trenches, who was there before Mulally and will be there after. He can bridge the two worlds and continue the cultural change.”
Fields’ replacement as head of North and South American operations is Joe Hinrichs, who has been running Asian operations. Stephen Odell, head of Ford of Europe, adds responsibility for Africa. Jim Farley, global marketing chief, was named the senior global leader for the Lincoln luxury brand. David Schoch becomes group vice president of Asia Pacific, while John Lawler becomes CEO of Ford Motor China.
Mulally had instituted weekly business-review meetings, which Fields will lead. His promotion becomes effective Dec. 1.
Ford’s operating profit in South America fell 91 percent in the year’s first nine months to $68 million, as heavy price discounting, weakening currencies and changes in government policies ate into earnings. Ford is losing money in Asia, where it’s spending $4.9 billion to expand in China. The automaker projects more than $1.5 billion in European losses this year and again next year.
Those challenges now fall to Fields as he becomes Mulally’s second-in-command. Until now, Mulally hasn’t had a COO since he came to Ford from Boeing in September 2006.
“Mark has got to help him figure out Europe, South America and Asia,” Lindland said of Mulally. “They still have an awful lot of work to do. They’re not out of the woods yet.”
Fields also will be tasked with continuing the new culture of openness Mulally created at the company. Ford has cited its desire to identify problems early as a reason for the three quick recalls of its redesigned Escape sport-utility vehicle since debuting in May, including one in which owners were instructed not to drive affected vehicles to the dealership because of the risk of an engine fire.
“It’s all about how do we keep our positive relationships with our customers and our dealers and let them know real-time what the state of the situation is,” Fields said in a 2010 interview. “I always find it annoying when I’m on a plane that’s delayed and I never hear from the pilot. I can stomach the delay a lot more when the pilot is giving us frequent updates.”
Before he began overseeing the Americas in 2005, Fields gathered extensive experience overseas. He was executive vice president of Ford of Europe and also ran the automaker’s European luxury brands, Jaguar, Land Rover, Aston Martin and Volvo, which Mulally later sold.
From 2000 to 2002, Fields was CEO of Mazda Motor Corp., in which Ford had a controlling stake at the time. He led a turnaround at Mazda with several Ford executives with whom he later worked closely to revive Ford’s North American business. Ford lost $30.1 billion from 2006 through 2008 and earned $29.5 billion in the last three years, mostly in Fields’ North American operations.
Ford’s profit margins in North America this week drew the praise of Sergio Marchionne, chief executive officer Fiat and Chrysler.
“Everybody in this business has dreams at night,” Marchionne said on Fiat’s quarterly earnings conference call on Oct. 30. “I dream of selling as many pickup trucks as Ford, and then I think we can get to double-digit at the same level of speed with which Ford got to. I like the pickup truck business a lot. I drool over it, actually.”