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Book Review: American Icon

Bryce G. Hoffman. American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford motor Company. New York: Crown Business, 2012. 422 pp. $26.00 (Hardcover), ISBN 978-0-307-88605-7.

Today the automotive world looks to Ford Motor Company as a standard in quality in the industry. This had not always been the case. In fact, this is a very recent development, coming only in the last five years. Like General Motors and Chrysler, Ford had been viewed as complacent in the market and bloated in brands in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This was only made worse under the leadership of CEOs Alex Trotman and Jacques Nasser. In 2001, Bill Ford become CEO of the company that bore his family’s name, but he began to realize Ford was in poor shape, and he was not the man to run the company.

Automotive journalist Bryce G. Hoffman explores this early history briefly in his book American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company. Bill Ford realized that Ford was desperate and needed to find someone who could save it. The man chosen for the job was Boeing executive Alan Mulally. Mulally had worked at Boeing after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 when Boeing’s sales were cut by over 50% following the attacks, and Mulally began to cut Boeing and reorganize it into a global business. This record attracted the attention of Bill Ford and he brought him to Ford as CEO in September 2006.

Hoffman uses his connections, as well as the cooperation of Mulally and many within Ford, to tell the story of one of the greatest turn-arounds in business history. When Mulally arrived at Ford, he encountered a poison corporate culture that encouraged competition and backstabbing among its executives. His job was to save Ford from bankruptcy, by some estimates Ford was only a few months from this reality, but Mulally would have to train the executives to think, and act, as a team. He did this by having weekly meetings with all senior executives who were required to present the data from their respective departments to Mulally each week. He wanted openness, something that had never been stressed in Detroit.

CEO Alan Mulally, Chairman Bill Ford, and VP of North American Cars and Trucks Mark Fields

As the openness began to spread, the problems within Ford became clear to Mulally and this allowed him and the team to begin restructuring the company. His goals was to simplify the Ford lineup by eliminating the majority of its brands (Ford owned Ford, Lincoln, Mercury, Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover, Volvo, and a stake in Mazda). At the same time, Mulally brought the organization methods used at Boeing to make Ford global. This organization saved Ford a great deal of money allowing them to sell the same cars worldwide and build a number of cars on the same vehicle platforms.

What set Ford apart was the fact that it was not bailed out by the United States government during the 2008 economic crisis. Ford had begun its restructuring two years before the meltdown and had seen the recession coming. It borrowed $23 billion in preparation for the crisis and came through the recession as a winner. The brand was praised by the public for not having to take federal bailouts like its competitors, but Ford had also begun improving quality and this was getting the attention of automotive publishers and Consumer Reports.

Hoffman’s description of Ford’s recovery is extremely detailed. This is due to his access to Ford executives and Mulally, but also due to the fact that he promised to not associate particular stories and quotes to their respective sources. This made people from Ford open up to Hoffman and he uses every piece of information to his advantage. His exploration of Ford’s restructuring is both informative and instructional.

The story of Ford’s resurgence is nothing short of amazing. It is striking similar to Steve Jobs’s return to Apple in 1997. But the one difference is Mulally. While Jobs is often described as a product visionary and, at times, difficult to work for, Mulally is more business minded and openly kind to employees at  every level of Ford. Both men’s systems of leadership have proven to be successful in the last decade despite their different leadership styles.

It may be a stretch to call Alan Mulally the greatest CEOs ever, but he is certainly the greatest automotive CEO in history. He knew how to read customers and the market and develop plans to meet both. Hoffman describes how the CEOs of GM and Chrysler scoffed at Mulally, an outsider, in 2006, but today Mulally is still head of Ford, they are no longer employed by the auto industry.

Hoffman’s analysis of Mulally’s business restructuring plans is the most important aspect of this book. The openness and sharing of ideas, weekly meetings with department heads, and a matrix organization system. He concludes that this plan is one that can be applied to a variety of businesses. Unlike books on Apple and Steve Jobs which specifically say their books are not intended to be instructional, Hoffman’s book is. The case of Ford and Mulally will likely be studied by business students in the future.

Hoffman has pieced together a great book that explains how Mulally was able to save Ford Motor Company. Mulally’s fight was not easy, battling the United Auto Workers, his executives, the government, and the Ford family. Each time, Mulally came out on top. The greatest fear at Ford today is when Mulally will retire. At 66, he is likely the oldest employee at Ford, if not in the auto industry. Many worry that his changes will not remain in place after he is gone. Only time will tell, but one thing is for certain, Ford is looking stronger now than it has it the history of the company, thanks to Alan Mulally. 

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Detroit Auto Show: Concept Roundup

One of the trademarks of the Detroit Auto Show has always been the concept cars. While there are far fewer concepts than in years past, there are some very important concepts that may show us the future of some models. For example, the Toyota NS4 is a Plug-In Hybrid that looks stunning, unlike the current Toyota Pruis. The NS4 gives us a glimpse of the future for the Toyota hybrid line.

Lincoln MKZ Concept

The Lincoln MKZ Concept and Honda Accord Coupe Concept show us what the future models for each may look like when the due for a refresh in 2013. The problem here though is that neither look quite right. The Lincoln MKZ Concept uses Lincoln’s new grille and the body from the new 2013 Ford Fusion, and they do not go well together. Clearly Lincoln needs to rethink its design of its grille. The Honda Accord Coupe Concept shows us that Honda is still struggling to find a grille design and does not offer much of a shape difference from the current Accord Coupe. Others that hind at future designs of vehicles include the Nissan Pathfinder Concept and Acura ILX Concept.

Some concepts are incredibly beautiful, such as the Lexus LF-LC Concept and Acura NSX Concept. Amazingly, both have hybrid engines while retaining sporty looks and performance. The Acura NSX is a comeback for the 1990s Honda NSX, and Acura insists it will build this car in the United States.

Acura NSX Concept

Chevrolet brought a pair of concepts, the Chevrolet Code 130R and Chevrolet Tru 140S, that do not appear to have any real purpose. Although, the Chevy Tru 140S is supposedly what the Chevrolet Cruze would look like as a coupe. Perhaps the biggest story on these concepts is the modified version of the Corvette badge they both feature.

Other concepts from the show include the electric (and ugly) Nissan e-NV200 and Volkswagen E-Bugster Concept. The Smart For-Us Concept shows us what a Smart off roader would look like, although an electric off roader would not be exactly brilliant. And the Chrysler 700C Minivan Concept is an attempt to cling on the minivans when everyone is switching to cross-over SUVS.

Lexus LF-LC Concept

The selection of concepts this year was fairly slim. I believe there are fewer concepts in Detroit this year because the auto industry has learned to focus its funds on production models and back off the unnecessary concepts. While some of these concepts may become or inspire production vehicles, the majority are just for show.

If you get a chance to visit the Detroit Auto Show, the show will be open to the public through January 22. If not, check out the reviews of each concept car listed above by clicking the link (will take you to Autoblog). Also, be sure to check out the gallery below.

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