I Thought, Oh-Oh

Sometimes Alan Mulally acts at home as Ford's CEO. Sometimes he acts like the new guy on the block, innocent but with fresh eyes. He recalls showing up five years ago for his first day of work at Ford World Headquarters. What do we call it, the Glass House? he asks, still working on local nicknames. On that opening day in Dearborn, MI, Mulally saw an executive parking area filled with Jaguars, Land

Sometimes Alan Mulally acts at home as Ford's CEO. Sometimes he acts like the new guy on the block, innocent but with fresh eyes.

He recalls showing up five years ago for his first day of work at Ford World Headquarters. “What do we call it, the Glass House?” he asks, still working on local nicknames.

On that opening day in Dearborn, MI, Mulally saw an executive parking area filled with Jaguars, Land Rovers and Aston Martins, fancy cars from blueblood British brands Ford had bought between 1989 and 2000.

Ford's upper management sure liked those imports, perhaps too much. “There wasn't one Ford in the parking lot,” Mulally recollects. “I thought, ‘Oh-oh.’”

The case seemed clear. If Ford brass won't drive Fords, who will?

Shortly after the parking-lot shock, Mulally led a meeting to review future Ford vehicles in the works. That was an epiphany, too.

“I raised my hand and said, ‘Where is the Ford Taurus?’ They said, ‘We don't make that anymore because we had a couple of bad years when it was redesigned and looked like a football.’

“I said, ‘How do you not make a model that sold 7 million units and was No.1 for eight years in a row?’”

Spurred by the new boss, product developers said, well yes, they could revive the Taurus fullsize sedan but it would take four years. Mulally says, “I told them, ‘How about two?’”

Ford now sells the new Taurus, which replaced the Ford Five Hundred, which had replaced the old Taurus.

Mulally tells of those first days on the job after accepting the Automotive Executive of the Year award at the Detroit Athletic Club, an institution whose founding members include automotive pioneers.

Even though Mulally still is relatively new to the auto industry, he has seared a big mark on it. He's credited with transforming Ford into the hot brand it is today.

When he left Boeing for Ford, skeptics wondered if someone from a firm that makes airplanes in low volumes for a small client base of fleet buyers could head a company that mass produces millions of different vehicles sold through a vast dealer network to individual consumers with an array of tastes.

“True leadership transcends industry, and no one exemplifies that today better than Alan Mulally,” says Robert Djurovic, head of the group bestowing the award.

Mulally embraces a Ford mission statement he spearheaded. On the surface, some of it sounds as corny as Kansas, Mulally's home state. But applied consistently and determinedly, it has fired up Ford.

At a Ward's interview with Mulally a few years ago, I asked how he intended to fix the then-troubled auto maker.

He enthusiastically gave me two things. First was a plastic pen with “Ford” printed on it. OK…Second was a 2-by-3 laminated card proclaiming “One Ford. One Team. One Plan. One Goal.”

More was there. But it all went back to those declarations atop the card all Ford folks were told to carry.

Introducing Mulally, the awards-ceremony emcee shares descriptions of him gleaned from Ford people and others.

They use words such as “daring,” “bold,” and “someone who says ‘neat’ a lot, as in, ‘It's really neat to work for Ford.’”

Mulally then takes the stage. He tells the audience, “It's so neat to be here.”

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