Franklin Institute honors Alan Mulally for winning teams he built at Ford, Boeing

3 x 2 alan mulally
Alan Mulally began his career at Boeing while in college and rose to become CEO of its commercial airline division before moving on to the Ford Motor Co.

Alan Mulally joined the Ford Motor Co. and transformed the struggling automaker into the top U.S. brand — without taking a federal bailout. Before that, he guided Boeing Commercial Airplanes through the 9/11 recession to make world-renowned airplanes. 

For his work, Mulally is being honored by the Franklin Institute with the 2017 Bower Award for Business Leadership. “I am humbled,” said Mulally.  “It’s an honor to be recognized by one of the oldest and premier centers of science education and development in America.”

With the award, to be given May 4, Mulally joins the ranks of such entrepreneurs as Henry Ford and Thomas Edison and CEOs from Medtronic's Bill George to Southwest Airlines' Herb Kelleher.

Mulally, 71, began his Boeing career while studying aeronautical engineering at the University of Kansas. Working with his professor, Mulally presented his research on flight dynamics at Boeing’s Seattle-area headquarters, scoring a job in 1969 after graduation. 

A string of promotions followed and he was chosen to serve as chief engineer and ultimately program manager of the Boeing 777 project in the early 1990s.  When he became CEO of Boeing’s commercial airline division, he helped launch the new 787 Dreamliner.   

“I enjoy helping develop not only the technology but the vision, strategy, and a relentless implementation plan,” he said.

He is known for developing “Working Together,” roping in all stakeholders to build the product. This meant customers and suppliers participated in the plane’s design, and Boeing used regular business plan reviews to ensure the plane was built on time and per specifications.        

“I have never worked with or witnessed another CEO who has better mastered the formidable challenge of leading and transforming a large-scale organization,” said Ram Charan, adviser to CEOs including Mulally. “[His] trademark strength is that he doesn’t try to do all the leading by himself. Instead, Mulally knows how to empower and unite a strong and focused leadership team.”

Mulally puts a premium on hiring those with a lifelong commitment to technical-skill development. Also key is the ability to work well on a team and execute the principles of Working Together. Most of all, he appreciates people with a passion for making a difference and serving others. 

That team was tested after 9/11 when the airline industry went into a tailspin. Boeing adjusted production to meet lower demand.    

“The most important step is dealing with reality — not the way you wish or hope it could be,” Mulally said.  “And it's important to always think about long term and continue to invest in future products.”

Those lessons would prove invaluable at Ford. After 37 years at Boeing, Mulally was recruited as CEO by Bill Ford. In 2006, when Mulally took over, the carmaker lost $17 billion. 

His team sought to raise quality as it cut expenses. A key factor for carmakers is the cost of union labor. Making this number sustainable would make Ford profitable, he said, and ensure more factory jobs. The changes swung Ford to a quarterly profit of $100 million in early 2008.

Then came the 2008 credit crisis. While competitors took bailout money, Ford refused. By improving product lines and selling noncore divisions, his team ensured that Ford would emerge stronger than in decades. Ford is now the top brand in the U.S., leading in Europe, and the fastest growing in the Asian Pacific.

“That Alan turned around Ford against the backdrop of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression without a bailout serves as an inspiration to current and future leaders of business,” Franklin Institute CEO Larry Dubinski said. 

Mulally stepped down from Ford in 2014 and joined the board of Alphabet (Google’s parent) that year. He keeps an eye on advances in car technology as Silicon Valley works with automakers.

"We’ll see safer and more autonomous vehicles," he predicted. "The key to making it a success will be working together.”