Jim Hackett is not a prototypical car guy. Nor is he a straight-line thinker or talker. But after more than two years as CEO of Ford, amid some head-scratching and skepticism, his unorthodox methods and esoteric train of thought are making some sense and showing signs they might pay off.
The former Steelcase CEO has a business history and affinity with Ford executive chairman Bill Ford, which led to Hackett first becoming a board member and then CEO after Mark Fields was let go.
Hackett is fully aware of his outsider status and the controversy surrounding his tenure. But he’s convinced he is setting Ford on the right course with a mix of traditional Rust Belt ways—yet more cost cutting—and new ideas about what people want from a vehicle.
Ford raised eyebrows with plans to ditch traditional sedans for car-platform vehicles sporting different body shapes. And the automaker disappointed Wall Street with promises (but few details) of electric and autonomous vehicles.
It’s only recently that actions have spoken louder than words with vehicle launches and burgeoning partnerships with VW, Rivian, and Argo AI to get future tech on the road faster. Ford stock remains below $10 a share, but analysts have started to appreciate the execution of Hackett’s plans and forecast earnings to increase, citing the restructuring, product mix, partnerships, and strategic actions.
Hackett continues to view a future where technology is the star but in a seamless, almost recessive role, working in the background to improve the vehicle and how the driver interacts with it.
He’s also taking a page from Tesla CEO Elon Musk in mulling over how manufacturing and IT processes can change. Hackett likes to tell the story of the Mustang he ordered for his wife that was quarantined for a bad part. “They lose her car, and it doesn’t come for 95 days,” he recalls. “I ask, ‘What’s the average time for delivery?’ They say, ’81 days.’ I say, ‘What was it 20 years ago?’ They say, ’81 days.’ Unacceptable today when overnight parcels from Amazon have changed people’s expectations,” especially when Ford can roll a new F-150 off the assembly line every 53 seconds.
Hackett likes this kind of “undercover boss” peek. He recently had senior executives don jeans and join him at a dealership where they watched customers fill out service orders and technicians wrench on cars. They also observed old-school IT practices in a world that moves at the speed of fingers on a smartphone. “I’m staring at all these processes, saying, ‘They haven’t shrunk fast enough, or they haven’t sped up.’ It’s not our finest depiction of being modern.”
Because of these real-world experiences, “I’m spending all my time thinking about the future of the factory and the future of IT systems right now,” he says. He’s asking questions such as why the FordPass app can start a car on a cold morning but can’t also open the garage door. “This actually is a hint into the way my brain thinks.”
To get others thinking the same way, he has worked to shed the company’s Mad Men look and feel with assistants guarding access to executives and too many walls and org charts to break down. He removed a third of the bureaucracy and cut thousands of jobs. “It’s starting to feel like our team,” he recently told the board.
How long will Hackett stay in the job to see his vision through? “Well, I got to have that discussion with my wife of 43 years first, and then one of my best friends is Bill Ford, so I’ll have that discussion, but we don’t talk about it,” he says. “I didn’t come into the job saying, ‘I got X amount of time. ‘”
Hackett, at 64, doesn’t want to lose younger executives eying his seat. “The bigger issue is to make sure we have the right succession and I get out of the way for the next team,” he says. A succession plan is in place with strong candidates. Obvious frontrunners are president of automotive Joe Hinrichs, who runs daily operations globally, and president of new businesses, technology, and strategy Jim Farley, who is focused on the future. “We have lots of options,” Hackett says with confidence.