Saving An Iconic Brand: Five Ways Alan Mulally Changed Ford’s Culture

Author Bryce G. Hoffman outlines the key steps taken by Ford CEO Alan Mulally to turn the automaker around, as detailed in Hoffman’s new book, American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight To Save Ford Motor Company.

Alan Mulally is credited with saving Ford Motor Company--and doing it without the taxpayer’s money. But what he really did was save Ford from itself.

In the American automobile industry, Ford was notorious for its caustic corporate culture. Executives put their own advancement and the success of their own departments ahead of the bottom line. The company was divided into warring fiefdoms. Different sets of data were used to make different points to different constituencies. And the automaker consistently bet big on homerun products only to let them languish after their initial success.

Applying the same methods he had used to save Boeing after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 annihilated its order book, Mulally transformed this short-sighted, cutthroat, careerist culture into a model of collaboration and efficiency. He achieved that result by doing the following:

Forcing everyone to “join the team”

Before Mulally arrived in Dearborn, Ford meetings were arenas of mortal combat. Executives entered them eying each other for advantage, looking for weak spots in each other’s armor, ready to drive home a shiv at the first sign of vulnerability. As a result, little was accomplished beyond self-preservation. Mulally made his weekly executive meetings a safe environment where data could be shared without blame. “So-and-so has a problem. He’s not the problem,” the upbeat CEO told the assembled executives. “Who can help him with that?”
To make sure they got the message, Mulally tied each executive’s performance to the success of the company as a whole.

Insisting on a rigorous reliance on the facts

At pre-Mulally Ford, the truth came in many different flavors. Different numbers were used for different audiences. Ford was also big on excuses. There was always a reason why things did not work out according to plan, but it rarely had anything to do with the root causes of Ford’s dysfunction.

In Mulally’s weekly “Business Plan Review” meetings, each executive was required to provide a comprehensive update on the progress their division or department was making against the backdrop of his turnaround plan. Because all of Ford’s senior executives were required to attend every week, any discrepancies in the data were quickly exposed. And because no explanations were allowed in these sessions, everyone had an opportunity to concentrate on the facts of the company’s performance. “There’s nowhere to hide,” Mulally told me.


Creating one Ford

It did not take Mulally long to realize that there was not just one Ford, but many. In addition to just plain Ford, there was Ford of Europe, Ford of Asia and a host of other divisions and subsidiaries. And there was little coordination, or even cooperation between its many parts.

Mulally’s first priority was to weld these disparate regional divisions together into a single, global enterprise. By doing that, he was able to create previously unimaginable economies of scale and create a multinational automotive powerhouse.
In an early meeting with reporters, Mulally was asked if he was interested in a merger. “Yes!” he exclaimed with a big grin as we all whipped open our notebooks. “We’re going to merge with ourselves.”

Building cars and trucks that people actually wanted

This might seem like a no-brainer, but in Detroit in 2006 it bordered on radical thinking. Like General Motors and Chrysler, Ford was locked into union contracts negotiated in better times that prevented it from laying off workers or closing plants. So it filled those factories with cheap vehicles and sold them at a loss.
Before he agreed to replace Bill Ford Jr. as CEO, Mulally told the great-grandson of Henry Ford that he intended nothing less than a complete, top-to-bottom reboot of the product lineup. From now on, every new Ford would be the best vehicle in its class. This product renaissance would not be cheap and Ford was running out of cash, but Mulally insisted on it. “You’ve been going out of business for 30 years,” Mulally told Bill Ford. “This is how to get back in it.”

Coming up with one plan and sticking to it

Ford had plenty of plans before Mulally. In fact, it usually came up with a different one every year or so. And when that one did not work, it came up with another.

But Mulally’s plan was different. It was simple, consisting of just four points. You’ve just read about three of them: Coming together as a team, leveraging Ford’s global assets, and building cars and trucks that people wanted and valued. The fourth point was putting together the financing necessary to pay for it all.
Mulally kept hammering home these four points in every meeting, every town hall session, every analyst meeting and press conference. After Mulally delivered the same stump speech at the New York auto show in April 2007, I asked him when he was going to come up with something new. “But, Bryce, we’re still working on this plan,” he replied. “Until we achieve these goals, why would we need another one?”

He was right. And Ford kept working on that plan until it became the most profitable automaker in the world.

Detroit News journalist and author Bryce G. Hoffman chronicles Ford’s turnaround in American Icon, out March 13 from Crown Business.

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8 Comments

  • Djohnson119


    Let's hope Alan Mulally comes to realise that Ford Australia design &
    make one of the best rear wheel drive family sedans in the world. and if He is
    truly serious about making the best vehicles, he will keep the Falcon brand.
    Build on it's heritage, expand the model line-up rather than withdraw from
    competition and surrender to the other car manufacturers' of the world. And take
    it to the world.

    I'm all for the re-unification of Ford globally. It will serve them well to
    pick the strongest assets from each regional division and share the `love'. The
    Falcon platform is our offering. It was once cosidered `the best' performing family sedan in
    the world. I for one would hate to see it continued to be watered down until it got
    quietly replaced with a smaller, less desirable, poorer performing, front wheel
    drive. It didn't work in the past. And I, being one of many, will abandon Ford
    all together for a Falcon equivalent if this is to be the Falcons' fait.
    If Ford do decide to grow the Falcon platform here are some suggestions; Give
    us the Mustang, but make it based on the Falcon platform. Morph the G6E into an
    Austin Martin equivalent. Bring back the long wheel base luxo & sport
    models, the wagons, Fairlane & LTD (call the LTD a Lincoln if you must). And
    give us a dual-cab sports Ute based on the Falcon platform. Keep the Territory based around the Falcon
    platform. Give us back the option of a V8 in all models (but make them more fuel
    efficient). Don't stop with a diesel in the Territory, offer it in the whole
    Falcon line up.
    Do this, and you will definitely ignite interest in the Blue Oval. And give
    the Motor writers something positive to write about! Rather then slowly hand
    them nails to drive into the Falcons' coffin and eventually Fords dominant
    presence in Australia.

  • Kevin19kjellerup

    In other words, he returned to Deming's principles that put Ford on top under Donald Peterson as well. Long lesson to learn. Imagine Ford having stayed on the Deming path for the last 20 years!

  • Wize Adz

    I've owned 3 Fords used since I've been a driver.  I bought all of them under duress of one kind or another, but they looked like a good deal because their prices drop so much more quickly than their usefulness.  (My behavior indicates that I personally don't mind doing a some maintenance to save money up-front on a used car.)

    But I actually *like* the new lineup well enough that I'd consider owning their cars voluntarily, for a change.  I've never considered myself a "Ford Man" but, if they keep this up, I may actually have buy a new Ford on its merits as an actual vehicle...!

    P.S. The disconnect in the American car industry probably revolves around the fact that people buy cars, and car companies build car factories.  It's easy to forget about the customer when you're just building a car factories...  It seems like Ford may be connecting point A to point B for a change!

  • Bernard Group Comm

    This is one of a handful of US CEOs who actually deserves every dollar that he is being paid.