A couple weeks from becoming Ford Motor Co.'s next chief executive officer, Jim Farley stopped to huddle with two young field sales representatives during an event to honor employees at a Dearborn, Michigan, dealership.
"What's the one thing at Ford Motor Co. you'd like to change?" he asked them, eliciting responses about the need for more models on the lot and financial assistance to market them.
It's a question Ford's chief operating officer is asking everyone he encounters these days as he prepares to take control on Oct. 1 of the 117-year-old automaker, which is struggling to find its way in a new transportation reality of shared, electric and self-driving cars. He put the question to factory workers at Ford's century-old Rouge manufacturing complex and middle managers at the automaker's headquarters.
He's even engaged the services of a "reverse mentor," a staffer in Ford's customer-experience area who is six levels below Farley on the org chart. "We need to invert the company," Farley, 58, explained on the sidelines of the dealer event. "We need the decisions and the authority and autonomy to come from all of us to unleash Ford."
Nicknamed Jimmy Car-Car by his parents for his love of all things with wheels, Farley was a rising star at Toyota Motor Corp.'s North American operations where he worked for almost two decades. But his roots at Ford run deep. He spent summers with his grandfather -- among the first Ford workers to build the Model T. At age 14, he drove from California to Michigan to visit his grandfather in a black 1966 Ford Mustang he had rebuilt. He didn't yet have a driver's license.
When asked on the day he was named CEO last month what it would mean to his late grandfather, Farley broke down. "For me on a personal level, it's quite -- sorry, I'm just getting a little emotional," Farley said, choking back tears. "It's quite humbling to think about my grandfather going into Highland Park and how humble his life was before that –- how much opportunity happened because of Ford. I just feel very in debt to the company."
Ford's profits have declined for the last three years, and it expects its first annual loss in a decade this year. Electric-car leader Tesla Inc. and Alphabet Inc. self-driving unit Waymo have stolen the march from established automakers. Farley's appointment is an acknowledgment the company needs to change to survive the seismic shifts upending the industry.
Long before Covid-19 crashed auto sales, Ford was suffering an identity crisis: Is it simply an old-line manufacturer churning out almost a million (highly profitable) pickup trucks a year? Or can it become a purveyor of smart, connected transportation, selling both the metal and mind of an automobile that runs on batteries, not brawny combustion engines?
Those questions stymied the last two occupants of Ford's corner office –- company lifer Mark Fields, ousted by the board in 2017, and Jim Hackett, a former office-furniture executive whose $11 billion overhaul of the automaker has been slow to gain traction. Ford's shares are down 60% since 2014.