Review – American Icon

American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company

by Bryce Hoffman, published 2013

As I read this book, three questions ran through my mind. The first question was “Was Ford Motor Company worth saving?”, the second question was “What do we mean by ‘save’ and what would have happened to Ford Motor Company if the effort was unsuccessful?” and the final question was “Why was Ford savable but GM and Chrysler were not?” But before I share my thoughts on those three questions I will try to summarize my understanding of how Alan Mulally did it.

Prior to being headhunted for the CEO role at Ford, Alan Mullaly had not spent any time in the international or US auto industries. While he had a nostalgic interest in Ford products rooted in his childhood memories like many Americans of his generation, Mullaly was an aeronautical engineer by education and trade and had made his name climbing the ranks of Boeing’s commercial aviation division. He was known as an able executive manager from that experience but many people inside the company and in the wider business world were skeptical that he’d be able to make an impact without understanding the unique intricacies of Ford’s automotive operations.

Besides questions about the applicability of his experience and skillset, Mulally faced the problem of the “bench”– by recruiting an outsider to run the company, Bill Ford was signaling that there was no one within the company who was up to the task. Further, there was a belief within the company and shared by other business strategists that Ford’s culture was broken and it couldn’t be fixed by continuing to employ the very leaders who were responsible for it being what it was. People expected Mulally to come in and make a number of dramatic public executions but no one could predict how he’d repopulate the executive ranks with fresh faces when the company was going through a crisis and faced a nightmare in attracting talent to a sinking ship.

Mulally’s solution, then, was both simple and unexpected. He treated his lack of industry knowledge as irrelevant in favor of installing proven management practices he developed at Boeing; and he endeavored to let the individual members of the leadership team come to their own conclusions as to whether they had what it took to change the culture and save the company– he created a new standard for performance and accountability and expected everyone to rise to the occasion or else fold under the pressure and leave on their own.

The cornerstone of his management practice was a weekly business plan review held on Thursdays with the global leadership team. Each VP was asked to run through a number of preformatted slides and color-coded KPIs in front of their peers, indicating the state of their operations against plan and projected five years out. The goal of the meetings was to publicly acknowledge challenges and to generate awareness that could lead to group problem-solving in follow-up special review meetings. Bringing visibility to problems created opportunities for the team to consider solutions that might originate outside a specific operating unit and it also allowed them to avoid compounding mistakes by adjusting operating plans in light of new challenges in related divisions.

This practice addressed one part of the corporate governance problem Ford had. The other part was addressed by restructuring roles and divisions themselves. Mulally implemented a matrix approach to management hierarchy and reporting which not only increased the number of VPs reporting directly to him, solving the problem of information silos or lack of accountability through problems hidden by bureaucracy, but it also organized more functions on a per-project basis which increased the likelihood of successful resource coordination within the boundaries of the project.

When most people think about strategy, they think about competitive strategy meaning what kinds of decisions does the company make with regard to its customers or its competition? But there is another layer of strategy which is often more important in a very large, very complex organization such as Ford, which is corporate strategy– how will the internal resources of the company be organized to maximize scale, efficiency and coordination? Mulally definitely made adjustments to Ford’s competitive strategy (such as his insight that their product lineup was too complex and fractured and needed to be radically simplified to fewer competitive models, or his commitment to raise the quality and durability of Ford’s products) but it appears the biggest impact was made through his corporate strategy rooted in new corporate governance initiatives.

Every social organization faces coordination problems. Without successfully solving these coordination problems, which are unique to each entity based upon its history, size and competitive position, there is chaos inside the company which results inwardly in waste and outwardly in a weakened competitive position. It is therefore entirely possible that something as simple as creating more effective meetings (which increase the quantity and quality of information-sharing across the organization, improving coordination) and restructuring roles and responsibilities (which empowers the “right” people to act on certain information, or else creates new responsibility for action that otherwise did not exist) can have a dramatic impact on the fortunes of a multi-billion enterprise.

Of course there were other key initiatives that took place either at Mulally’s behest or on his watch which played critical roles in how the story turned out, including a major renegotiation of the company’s union contracts as well as a massive refinancing of the company’s debt and capital structure. But from my reading of the text, these things would’ve at best given the company a bit more rope with which to hang itself. Fixing corporate governance and leveraging the company’s corporate strategy was the real coup de grace that Mulally delivered. For an amateur executive manager such as myself it is both inspiring and a bit unnerving to think of how poorly managed so many major and minor enterprises alike are given this insight.

Now that I’ve offered my interpretation of how Mulally pulled it off, let’s explore the three higher level questions I wondered about as I was reading. I’ll take them in reverse order.

The book doesn’t make it clear why Ford could be saved while GM and Chrysler could not. (Along the lines of the “rope to hang with” logic, while Ford had an incipient existential crisis aggravated by the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, GM and Chrysler remained happily/deludedly oblivious to their own until the GFC arrived.) One answer might be that Ford still had significant private family ownership while GM and Chrysler had already been converted into unfamiliar, faceless corporate automatons by that point and so there was no individual impetus to save them. This reason, if true, represents a different kind of corporate governance problem that extends into the realm of social governance.

Another reason might be that GM’s and Chrysler’s problems were too deep. Even if someone was aware they needed saving, and wanted to save them, they couldn’t be. It would’ve been futile. So no one even tried. A final argument I considered is based upon scarcity. There was only one Alan Mulally in the world, he could only save one legacy American automobile manufacturer and so once he was called upon to save Ford there was no one left for the other two. I consider this to be the least likely circumstance but it could be true.

In any case, it might not be an important question to answer. We might consider why in trying to answer the second question, “What do we mean by ‘save’ and what would’ve happened if the effort was unsuccessful?” Things get sticky here. If Ford Motor Company collapsed, as many American and international nameplates collapsed over the years ahead of it, life would go on just as it did when the others fell. Some of the physical assets, such as plants and parts inventory, would be purchased by surviving manufacturing entities and others would be scrapped or abandoned. Some employees (and managers) would find work in the same field under different ownership and others would find work in new fields unrelated to automotive. Some of the brands, technology and IP of the company might be purchased by third parties and in that way the Ford brand might be “kept alive” indefinitely. Or it may have been the case that a failure of that magnitude killed the value of this historic franchise and the Blue Oval would be buried for good.

If anything Ford did had value and utility in the marketplace, it would likely continue to have such value and utility whether “Ford” was responsible for producing it or not. And to the extent it did not (in whole or in part) there’s really no reason why such activity should continue under Ford’s aegis if it wouldn’t under anyone else’s. Nostalgia by itself is only worth so much and it turns out that is not very much.

So “saving” Ford really means keeping a certain collection of assets under the control of a certain collection of financial and management interests and retaining certain contracts with employees and a certain ecosystem of vendors and distributors. There’s nothing magic or eternal to this and the evidence for this fact is contained by the knowledge that Ford itself had agglomerated into itself other foreign brands such as Volvo, Mazda and Jaguar-Land Rover. If some brands can die and others can live on under Ford’s ownership, certainly something similar could happen to the Ford brand and organization without cosmic repercussions. The dramatic tension of the story loses a bit of gusto when we consider all of this.

The final question is a moral question. It implies a “should”. Should Ford Motor Company have been saved? Asking about its worth begs the question “Worth to whom?” And you could insert many answers there: its employees, its suppliers, its customers, politicians with Ford operations in their districts, “society” at large, and so on. But because Ford Motor Company is and was a public company owned by a collection of shareholders and operated with the intent of earning a profit and thereby generating wealth, I want to focus this question on the members of the Ford family, who were its controlling shareholders and thus primarily responsible for the strategic governance of the company.

The book makes it clear that aside from Bill Ford and one or two other direct descendants of Henry Ford, the Ford family as shareholders were not deeply involved in the management or operations of the company and in fact many of them might be what are politely termed “trust fund layabouts.” That is, many of the existing Ford family members did little through their own efforts to contribute to the enhancement of the value of the Ford Motor Company nor any other personal enterprise they might be associated with and instead enjoyed a comfortable life of easy wealth and leisure thanks to the luck of being born into an inheritance.

Personally, I see no moral evil in that, though many people do. Some people will be rich and some people will be poor and the fact that some people are rich simply because they had a successful relative isn’t their fault. If anything, we should protect these privileges as a social obligation because the wealth they enjoy was rightfully created by one of their heirs and that individual, because they created it, has every right to do whatever it is they want to do with it up to and including giving it away to charity, giving it away to relatives or burying physical manifestations of it in a giant pit.

That being said, because it is not a moral evil for them to have it it’s also not a moral evil for them to lose it. They’re certainly not entitled to it and they don’t seem to have any real capability to make anything out of it beyond a means of personal amusement. Why Ford Motor Company should be “saved” to protect them from the follies of the world is a question with no objective answer. If it wasn’t them who owned this wealth it would be someone else, so why worry so much if their ownership claim dissolves in a pool of historical mismanagement and transfers to some other person or persons with a better idea of what to do with it? That sounds like progress, to me.

In fact, it sounds not just like progress, but like Thomas Jefferson. We might but repurpose a few words from his famous correspondence to have something rather fitting for this occasion, as seen here:

What signify a few fortunes lost in a century or two? The tree of economy must be refreshed from time to time with the wealth of trust fund layabouts & shiftless public shareholders. It is its natural manure.

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