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Ford is on a high-level hiring spree, and it's no accident

Jordyn Grzelewski, The Detroit News on

Published in Automotive News

DEARBORN, Mich. — Ford Motor Co. is on something of a high-level hiring spree, and it's no coincidence.

The Dearborn automaker is bolstering its senior leadership ranks, chiefly where politics and the auto business intersect. It's beefing up its policy and technology know-how amid a push to execute its new growth plan, lead the electric-vehicle transition and influence policy decisions that will shape how that future is realized.

As the industry pivots hard toward electrification and self-driving vehicles, Ford executives see major policy issues looming in capitals around the world. Because politics influence the policy-making that weighs on the global auto industry, the Blue Oval is moving to field a team to navigate such complicated issues as infrastructure, incentives and the politics of a hyper-partisan Washington.

Since CEO Jim Farley assumed the top job last October, Ford completed the internal reshuffling that often comes with a new boss by moving people internally and recruiting external hires for such key roles as marketing, new businesses and mergers-and-acquisitions.

But in a signal that Ford is looking to sharpen its policy chops, it tapped director Jon Huntsman Jr., the former Utah governor, businessman, diplomat and onetime presidential candidate, as vice chair for policy. And Huntsman recruited Steven Croley, a former federal lawyer who worked in the Obama administration, to become Ford's chief policy officer and general counsel.

"The CEO and the board ... looked forward and said, 'What we need in the C-suite is more policy expertise, more political savvy.' And that's what they got with these two guys," said Erik Gordon, a professor at University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. "They fit into the pile of building blocks that Farley is assembling to execute the plan."

All are tasked with helping to deliver on Farley's growth plan for the company. Dubbed Ford+, it is focused on electrification, providing revenue-generating services enabled by digital connectivity, and growing Ford's commercial vehicle business. Those are the pillars of Ford's plan to move from infrequent transactions with customers to a business model built on new, recurring revenue streams.

These prominent hires come as Ford and its rivals in the auto industry embark on the costly shift to electric and autonomous vehicles, an effort closely intertwined with government regulations and policies now being negotiated from Washington and Sacramento to Brussels and Beijing. And they come amid tightening environmental regulations as the Biden administration pushes infrastructure legislation with major implications for EV sales and manufacturing in the U.S.

"Most companies are taking a different look than what they did historically," said David Cole, chair emeritus of the Ann Arbor-based Center for Automotive Research. "If you go back a number of years, (automakers) designed cars, built cars, sold them to the dealer, the dealer sold them to the customer. The role of policy ... was pretty straightforward. Now, it's not."

Policy chops

In developing the Ford+ plan, Farley and his team identified areas where they felt the company needed to improve. Those include policy, customer experience and software. There also is a focus on modernizing within the existing workforce, developing in-house software capabilities and preparing employees for the transition to vehicles powered by electric motors instead of internal combustion engines.

Experts say federal policy will play an even more important role than it has during previous eras of transition in the global auto industry. Take, for example, the need to build infrastructure that supports EVs.

"People are not going to buy vehicles they can't operate because there's no electricity for them," Gordon said. "So, that makes policy important. As they move also toward driver assistance and then autonomous vehicles, that's going to be constrained by and driven by policy considerations — policies made by politicians."

New technologies, supply chain snarls and trade issues also are at the forefront. The industry currently is navigating through one of its most complex supply-chain challenges ever, for example: the months-long shortage of computer chips that promises to grow more pressing as vehicles become more technologically advanced.

"Whether you're talking about globalization, interface with ... China or Europe, policy issues, or tech issues, those historically were a lot simpler years ago than they are today," Cole said. "And I think particularly when you're looking at the senior level in terms of policy, you better make sure you're well-connected to every factor that's going to have some impact on the business."

Enter Huntsman, a Republican, and Croley, a Democrat. Their roles are broad-ranging and global, focused on policy areas including sustainability, government affairs, international politics, energy and trade.

Huntsman was eyed for his international affairs chops, particularly in China. As the world's largest auto market and one where EVs are being adopted more rapidly than in North America, China is a focus for Ford and other global automakers as they look to achieve the global scale needed to make the investment in EVs pay off.

Ford historically has been a smaller player in the region. But it has seen some progress with a new product portfolio geared toward the preferences of Chinese customers, as well as the promise of new EVs prepared to challenge rival Tesla Inc. there.

Huntsman is said to have a deep understanding of the China market, consumers there, and the who's who in politics after serving as the U.S. ambassador to China under former President Barack Obama. He speaks fluent Mandarin and has extensive experience in the region.

He rejoined Ford's board of directors last year and in April was tapped as vice chair of policy, an expanded role that has him advising Farley and Executive Chair Bill Ford. He's tasked with working with teams across the company, and representing Ford "with certain government officials and influencers in the United States and other countries around the world," the company said in announcing his new position.

"Global policy is hugely important to transforming Ford and unlocking great value for customers and all stakeholders," Farley said at the time. "Jon's background, insights and achievements are unrivaled — as an ambassador and trade representative, a state governor and a public-company executive."

Huntsman, a former executive at his family's multinational chemicals company, Huntsman Corp., served as governor of Utah from 2005 to 2009. He served as the U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Donald Trump, ambassador to China under Obama, and ambassador to Singapore under Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. He also had trade assignments under President George W. Bush.

 

And though he ran for president as a Republican, Huntsman is not a partisan firebrand. He served in administrations under both parties and has relationships on both sides of the political aisle — precisely the kind of bipartisan pedigree Ford wants to help it navigate D.C. politics today.

In an era of extreme political polarization, experts say businesses must consider partisan affiliations when building policy and lobbying teams. In Ford's case, Croley brings Democratic bonafides, balancing out the GOP ties of Huntsman and Mitch Bainwol, Ford's chief government relations officer.

"You better be able to play with both sides, with somebody that has significant interface with each side," Cole said. "That's just the reality of today, with this political polarization. And it's not going to go away soon."

Croley, meanwhile, brings a different type of policy expertise, namely energy issues — a critical competence as the industry pivots toward electrification. In announcing the hire, Farley touted Croley's "deep leadership experience at the intersection of law and policy."

Croley reports to Farley and is slated to work closely with Huntsman. Bainwol and Bob Holycross, vice president of sustainability, environment and safety engineering, both report to him.

Croley most recently served as a partner in the D.C. office of Latham & Watkins, where he focused on legal policy and regulatory compliance around energy and environmental issues. He previously served as general counsel for the U.S. Department of Energy, and prior to that worked in the White House as a special assistant to Obama for regulatory policy and later as deputy counsel overseeing legal policy.

Croley, who is married to Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack, was a special assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Michigan's Civil Division and later worked at the University of Michigan Law School.

In bringing him on board as general counsel and chief policy officer, Farley "brought in — not somebody who has been general counsel of a public company, not somebody who's a dealmaker — but somebody who is an energy policy wonk," said Gordon.

Huntsman and Croley are just two of several recent additions to the senior leadership team. Late last year, Suzy Deering joined Ford as head of global marketing after serving as chief marketing officer at eBay, bringing with her a background in technology, data and analytics as Ford looks to reorient its relationship with customers.

And Ford recently tapped Franck Louis-Victor, formerly an executive at French automaker Renault SA, to head up the automaker's new businesses platform. In that role, he's responsible for devising a strategic plan that encompasses both existing and new capabilities in such areas as autonomous vehicles and mobility service. He also oversees new ideas developed via the company's incubator, Ford X.

Open for business

Meanwhile, Ford last month welcomed Doug Power into a newly created position — vice president of corporate development. He came from multinational foods giant General Mills Inc., where he led the company's $8 billion acquisition of the pet food brand Blue Buffalo.

The University of Michigan graduate has spent 25 years in the mergers-and-acquisitions space, including stints at Merrill Lynch and two technology firms.

Now that he's made the move to Ford, Power is focused on beefing up the company's M&A team, developing a cohesive strategy that serves the company's growth plan and proactively identifying deals that fit in with what Ford is trying to accomplish.

"I've been doing M&A now for 25 years and I've been at four different companies," he said in an interview. "This is the clearest strategy a company I've joined has had, and it's also incredibly clear where we can add value from an M&A perspective."

Those areas align with Ford's plan. His team, for example, could play a role in connected services by acquiring the necessary software capabilities. Another area of focus, he said, will be Ford Pro, the dedicated commercial vehicle business Ford announced earlier this year. And on electrification, Power sees potential around EV charging and vertical integration of the supply chain.

Ford already has made moves in those areas, for example with its recent acquisition of EV fleet charging provider Electriphi, and with its EV battery-manufacturing joint venture with SK Innovation. There are other parts of the supply chain where Power's team will look for M&A potential.

"We're in the strategy phase of vertical integration right now, with the whole stack under review," he said. "I imagine that over time, in the near term, we will identify at least one or two areas where we're going to decide, 'If we can find the right company, with the right capabilities, the right people, it would be better to own this capability.'"

He emphasized it's not just about closing deals, however, but making proactive, strategic moves. Ford's top leadership, he said, already is behind that approach.

Meanwhile, said CAR chair emeritus Cole, "You never work on a detail outside of the context of the bigger picture. What these announcements from Ford basically say is that, 'We've got to be appropriately plugged into the bigger political picture.' "

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