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Ford thinks it can solve its problems by putting a longtime furniture executive in charge

Ford replaced Mark Fields with former Steelcase CEO Jim Hackett.

Jim Hackett, Ford’s new CEO
Ford

Ford, facing challenges from both automotive and tech competitors, has a new boss, one with little experience in the automotive or tech industries.

New Ford CEO Jim Hackett has served on Ford’s board since 2013, and he spent the last year running Ford’s Smart Mobility Group — its department focusing on on-demand services and other new businesses.

But most of Hackett’s career was spent in the furniture business. He ran Steelcase, the office furniture giant, for 20 years. He also spent two years as the University of Michigan’s interim athletic director.

Hackett is replacing Mark Fields, who’d been at Ford since 1989 and was the CEO since 2012.

It’s an odd time for the company to tap someone from outside the world of automotive or technology. But Fields faced criticism for moving the company too slowly into the world of self-driving cars and other tech advances. And Wall Street didn’t like Ford under Fields, period: Shares were down 40 percent during his tenure.

Rival General Motor’s shares, meanwhile, have bounced around in the same period, but are now more or less where they were three years ago. Chrysler shares, which started trading again in October 2014 at around $5.98, are now trading at $10.74.

The leadership swap also signals that executive chairman Bill Ford Jr. will play a more active role in the company than he did during Fields’ and Alan Mulalley’s tenures as CEO. Now both the government relations and communications departments will report to Ford Jr., not the company’s newly hired CEO.

Ford finalized the decision to replace Fields on Friday but, as he said on a press call today, there had been discussions about the move for some time.

“No decision like this is made hastily,” he said without going into much more detail.

Now, Ford and Hackett are faced with the task of integrating the culture and vision of its mobility projects — which Fields previously compared to a startup-like environment — into the rest of the company. Traditionally, both internally and in the public, those two businesses were considered and referred to separately as the core and emerging business.

Hackett has to find a way to move the two businesses forward faster and as one.

It’s a problem akin to what traditional publishers faced in the early days of digital media. After creating digital arms that were cordoned off from the core operations, traditional publishers struggled to integrate it into the DNA of the business while native digital companies were able to quickly gain a competitive advantage in the nascent industry.

For Ford, the question is how does the company take the move-fast approach of its mobility arm and apply it to its manufacturing arm, which is typically burdened with things like bureaucratic red tape?

“The whole company needs to evolve and change. The change is not just going to happen just at [Ford Smart Mobility],” Ford said. “We don’t want competing groups, we don’t want one group to feel like they’re the cool group and the other group is the left-out group.”

Exactly how they’ll do that has yet to become clear. For now, the company will continue to operate Ford Smart Mobility as a separate entity.

“It’s appropriate that Ford Smart Mobility still exists because they do need to work on these new business models and both invent them and develop them,” Ford said. “But it’s important that we are seen by our employees and ultimately by the public that this ... is how we’re moving forward as one company and not several separate companies.”

Ford has spent the better part of the last year or so scrambling to make investments in the autonomous and mobility space. Within a matter of months the company announced it was pouring money into companies like lidar manufacturer Velodyne, mapping startup Civil Maps and acquiring on-demand shuttle service Chariot.

In the beginning of 2017, the company put $1 billion toward acquiring the majority of self-driving startup Argo AI.

But those moves came after many players in the industry — including Tesla and Alphabet’s Waymo unit — had made significant strides, and are already seeing progress in their autonomous efforts.


This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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