Saturday, September 20, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

What Mark Fields needs to improve at Ford

Ford´s future after Alan Mulally steps down.
Ford's future after Alan Mulally steps down. iStock

(MCT) -- Alan Mulally's One Ford vision saved the automaker from bankruptcy and led to multibillion-dollar profits, but there's still work to do.

When Mulally steps down Monday, successor Mark Fields must begin to create Ford 2.0, a new definition of the company that builds on Mulally's successes, mends mistakes and primes Ford for growth at home and around the world.

The One Ford program broke down regional boundaries and rivalries within the company and focused Ford's resources on developing a single set of vehicles, technologies and values. While it succeeded, Ford's Lincoln luxury brand continued to languish, hard-won improvements in quality evaporated and Ford has played catch-up in booming new markets like China.

When Mulally came to Dearborn, Mich., in 2006, Job 1 was avoiding bankruptcy. For Fields, the goal is to make Ford a global leader.

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  • The tasks at hand:

    LINCOLN: Ford's luxury brand remains a disappointment, despite pledges to return it to glory. Shoppers don't yet consider Lincoln a true alternative to BMW, Cadillac, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz, Edmunds.com analyst Bill Visnic said.

    The MKZ sedan that went on sale last year has helped, and early word on the upcoming 2015 MKC small crossover is positive, but "Lincoln still hasn't come out with a knockout product" that demands buyers' attention, IHS Automotive senior analyst Stephanie Brinley said.

    "Fixing Lincoln will not just be on Mark Fields' watch," Autotrader.com senior analyst Michelle Krebs said. "It'll be his successor's job, too. It's going to be a long, long haul."

    QUALITY: After rising for years, Ford's quality ratings and customer satisfaction scores plummeted in 2012 and 2013 because of a couple of new technologies. Customers rebelled against a new dual-clutch transmission and touch-screen controls that eliminated dials and buttons for things like audio volume and fan speed.

    "Ford changed things in ways that consumers don't understand," Brinley said.

    Ford was initially slow to respond, but the recent J.D. Power Initial Quality Study showed improvement.

    "Ford stretched the envelope for the whole industry" with the technologies, Edmunds' Visnic said. Despite that, he said "Ford's in a pretty good place when it comes to assembly quality," the traditional measure of how pieces fit together and whether a vehicle's major mechanical systems work.

    The glitches, and Ford's recent downward restatements of fuel economy claims, were embarrassments, Krebs said.

    NEW VEHICLE MANUFACTURING LAUNCHES: Ford has a hard time getting a new model out of the factory and onto the road in large quantities out of the box. Delays plagued the Lincoln MKZ's launch for months. Recalls have been common for early-production units of other models, especially the Escape.

    "For Ford historically, launch quality has been an issue," Brinley said. The new management team - Fields, engineering chief Raj Nair and North and South American operations boss Joe Hinrichs - did well improving it in other parts of the world, she said.

    The 2015 F-150 pickup that goes into production later this year will be the biggest challenge. Its aluminum body is a radical departure, but potentially an industry changer. Customers will be watching. Competitors will pounce on any vulnerability.

    "The F-150 launch has to be impeccable," Krebs said. "It's the company's bread-and-butter vehicle."

    ASIA AND EUROPE: Ford was slower than General Motors and Volkswagen to establish its foothold in China, but it has narrowed that gap substantially in the past two years.

    "Ford's still years ahead of many other competitors," Brinley said. IHS predicts Ford's Chinese sales will hit 824,000 this year and top a million in 2019.

    Europe, where Ford's done business for a century, is another matter. Ford is among the few brands whose sales are falling this year as the whole continent rises. The Ford brand is struggling as upscale brands like BMW and Mercedes move into its small-car territory and the European market appears to move away from midsize models like Ford's popular Mondeo/Fusion.

    As Ford rolls out its 2015 models and Mulally moves on June 30, the ball's in Fields' court.

    Mark Phelan Detroit Free Press