Last year Ford sold millions of cars around the world and made billions in profit. And yet, it seems to be on shaky ground. For some of us, there’s an uneasy feeling the company is in trouble and really doesn’t know where it’s going.
It starts with its lineup of vehicles. Ford has some of the oldest car and truck models in the market and missed several significant shifts in consumer demand. The fact that its sales have held up reasonably well are a testament to the strength of its dealer body.
While the company rightfully is proud of the success of its F-Series trucks, it missed the growing demand for midsize pickups. By the time the midsize Ford Ranger reaches the market, GM will have sold 500,000 midsize Colorados and Canyons. Talk about slow to react.
Moreover, it’s incomprehensible that Ford let GM dominate the fullsize SUV segment for so long. While the redesigned Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator finally are serious competitors, GM has 64% market share in the single most profitable segment in the U.S. market. What line of thinking led the company to ignore such a rich source of profits?
The same goes for subcompact crossovers in the U.S. With the Ecosport, Ford is the last into a segment that’s grown from almost nothing to nearly 1 million units. That’s a big miss. What makes it all the more puzzling is that Ford has been selling the Ecosport and Ranger outside the U.S. for more than a decade. The Ranger and Ecosport should have been segment leaders, not laggards.
And then there’s the puzzling episode regarding the $1.6 billion assembly plant Ford started building in Mexico in April, 2016. Somehow Ford decided it needed more capacity to make the Focus, even though sales of passenger cars are in a prolonged slump. Then-candidate Donald Trump lambasted the company for building the Mexican plant, and Ford abruptly announced it was cancelling it in January, 2017.
Ford said its decision had nothing to do with Trump and that it actually decided to axe the plant before the Nov. 7 election. And yet, if it made the decision then, why did it keep on building the plant? Why did it let hundreds of workers show up every day for two months to bulldoze land, pour concrete, lay pipes, and erect steel girders? Something doesn’t add up. All told, the company wasted about $200 million on the effort.
Ford was the first major automaker to identify the seismic shift to mobility. In early 2015 it launched 25 experiments around the world to develop mobility services. It clearly was ahead of everyone else. But those efforts never transitioned into viable businesses. Since then, with investments in Lyft, with the launch of Maven, the continuing growth in OnStar, and the spectacular advancements of its Bolt autonomous vehicles, General Motors has surged past Ford. And that’s reflected in the stock price. Since Ford launched its Smart Mobility Plan its stock dropped 30% while GM was up 20% through January.
Investors buy stock based on their expectations of future earnings. GM is showing them a clear path to how it’s going to make money with connected, autonomous, shared and electric vehicles. Ford can’t convince Wall Street it has a viable plan.
And that brings us to management. Ford sure goes through a lot of top executives. By my count, since 2000 there have been seven different top executives, CEOs and COOs, running the company. With the exception of Alan Mulally’s time as CEO, the rest served for an average of two and a half years. It’s impossible to implement any kind of long term plan when the people at the top are switched out so frequently.
There’s no doubt Ford’s newest CEO Jim Hackett is a very bright executive. But at 62, he probably will be gone in a couple of years. And having to go outside for a CEO shows the board of directors doesn’t have confidence in the very leaders it’s been grooming in-house.
I’ve interviewed and studied Ford’s top executives. They’re as sharp as they come, equal to anyone else in the industry. I can’t see how they’re the problem. That suggests the board of directors hasn’t been watching the store or demanding the kind of accountability that is their fiduciary duty.
Hopefully this will get fixed fast. Ford is a critically important player, one that hundreds of thousands of people and communities depend on. With the auto industry at such a critical juncture, every day counts. The good news is that all the necessary ingredients are there for Ford to be on the leading edge of this transition. They just need to be put in place.