Washington: Ford Motor on Thursday tapped Mark Fields as chief executive, accelerating a leadership transition as it aims to capitalise on momentum from a turnaround chartered by outgoing chief Alan Mulally.
Fields, 53, will take reins from Mulally, 68, on July 1, six months ahead of the original plan, said Ford executive chairman Bill Ford in a statement.
"Alan and I feel strongly that Mark and the entire leadership team are absolutely ready to lead Ford forward, and now is the time to begin the transition," said Bill Ford.
The shift comes at a sunnier time for Ford, which has returned to solid profitability, but must now show strong sales growth from a heavy and expensive launch of new vehicles.
In contrast to Mulally, who was recruited in 2006 from a senior role at Boeing, Fields has risen through the ranks at the automaker, heading the Americas division and South American operations before being picked in November 2012 as chief operating officer.
The promotion of the youthful Fields underscores a generational shift in Detroit, following rival General Motors' move in January to pick Mary Barra, 52, as the first woman to lead a major automaker.
With his movie-star good looks, Fields turned heads earlier this year when he said he wants "to bring sexy back to the auto industry" as it competes for attention with popular tech icons like Apple and Yahoo.
On Thursday, Fields emphasised the need to keep customers happy.
"We want to make sure we produce vehicles people want," Fields said at a company event that was webcast. "We want to see smiles on their faces."
Analysts say Ford customers have not always had reason to smile.
"More emphasis on quality is paying off," said Morningstar in a recent note. "Ford now makes cars people actually want to own instead of vehicles that are purchased only because of heavy incentives."
Choice of continuity
Analysts say Ford is in a much different place compared with when Mulally took the top spot in 2006 as the first chief not to come from the Ford family.
As an outsider to the auto industry, Mulally faced initial scepticism, but quickly gained momentum as he unveiled a spate of reforms he dubbed the "One Ford" plan.
Mulally instituted weekly staff meetings for executives to improve communication and teamwork at a company famed for infighting and fiefdoms. He dumped luxury brands such as Jaguar and streamlined the company's manufacturing operations. Above all, he cut costs.
Mulally is credited with borrowing some $24 billion in 2006, a move that enabled Ford to avert a government bailout and bankruptcy after the financial crisis.
In late 2013 and early 2014, Mulally was frequently mentioned as a candidate to lead Microsoft, but the software giant ultimately turned inward for a new CEO, choosing Satya Nadella.
Though Ford reported a 39 per cent drop in profits in its most recent quarter, the company confirmed its expected 2014 profits before taxes of $7-$8 billion. The company has said an unusually heavy season of product launches will cut into 2014 returns.
Morningstar said the company will need "better product" for its Lincoln line, a transformation that will "take several years."
Analysts have also said the automaker must continue to show strong growth in China and other emerging markets.
Ford officials on Thursday depicted Fields' promotion as a choice of continuity, even as they emphasised that they looked outside the company before moving ahead with Fields.
Fields "is part of the culture of Ford that I think is so positive," Bill Ford told CNBC.
Mulally told the network that Fields was "the right guy at the right time," adding, "I'm so pleased we're doing something that's very rarely achieved in business, and that's have an orderly transition."
Ford shares fell 0.6 per cent in midday trade to $16.06.