A happy family: Lisa Bargende Sollish, Remy, Harper and Elizabeth Sollish. It was a weekend…
How Ford’s Mark Fields rose to the top.
When Mark Fields begins his new duties as chief operating officer of Ford Motor Company Dec. 1, he’ll be making history.
Fields will become the first Jewish person to, in effect, run the 109-year-old international automaker with 164,000 employees. He’ll also be just a step away from the title of Ford chief executive officer, making him one of the highest-ranking Jewish executives in the global automotive business.
A Jew running Ford, the company founded by Henry Ford, one of the most notorious anti-Semites in American history? Veteran observers of the automotive scene thought it could never happen. But it’s a new era at Ford, an era that actually started when the elder Ford’s grandson, Henry Ford II, took over the company in the 1940s and launched his version of affirmative action.
Ford II, a friend of philanthropist Max Fisher and other Jewish leaders and frequent contributor to the old United Jewish Appeal, hired Jewish, African American and other minority employees, and installed minority dealers and suppliers. What’s even more important, many of the minority employees rose to higher ranks within Ford than did those at GM and Chrysler.
Mother Sustains Jewishness
Fields, 51, whose family name had been Finkelman in past generations, and whose mother used to send him packages of matzah and Chanukah candles around the world to remind him to keep up his Jewishness, fits right in at the new Ford Motor Company.
Earlier this month, the elder Ford’s great-grandson and current executive chairman, Bill Ford Jr., announced Fields’ appointment, plus other executive promotions, practically cementing Fields’ position as heir apparent to CEO Alan Mulally after 2014.
This vote of confidence will give Fields time to further prove his mettle after being Ford’s president of the Americas for seven years, leading the development, manufacturing, marketing and sales of Ford and Lincoln vehicles in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and South America.
He implemented The Way Forward plan and was responsible for the highly successful transformation of Ford’s North American operations and its record profitability, although not without the elimination of some vehicle models, thousands of job cuts and the closings of several of Ford’s oldest assembly plants.
Fields now will head everything in Ford’s worldwide business operations — the Americas, Europe, Mideast and Africa, Asia Pacific, Product Development, Manufacturing and Labor Affairs, Purchasing, Quality, Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering, Information and Technology, Government and Community Relations, Market, Sales and Service, and Communications.
Must Continue Culture Change
“Ford is handling this the right way, putting Mark in a stationary position to give him more experience instead of moving him around the world as in recent years,” observed Jewish journalist Paul Eisenstein of the Detroit Bureau in Pleasant Ridge, who’s a 34-year veteran of the global automotive scene. “The question now is, can Mark continue the corporate culture change at Ford that Alan Mulally installed; can Mark take this to the next level after Mulally? There’s no doubt that Mark is a talented guy who did a solid job running the Americas; the company’s profit numbers prove that.”
Mulally, 67, came to the faltering company in 2006 from the Boeing Co. and was the architect of Ford’s major turnaround, avoiding the eventual bankruptcy restructurings that befell General Motors and Chrysler. He will continue leading the long-term strategic development of his Ford One Plan.
While the company said Mulally officially still has 26 months to go before retirement, these “waiting” periods in the auto industry have been known to shrink in the past, and the new chief — in this case, probably Fields — takes over sooner.
How did Fields do it — the handsome Jewish boy who was born in Brooklyn and raised in Paramus, N.J.? The answer: It took a lot of intelligence, ability and simply being in the right place at the right time.
Bar Mitzvah In Paramus
Fields’ grandparents were immigrants from Russia and Romania. But like him, his parents were born in America. He became a bar mitzvah at a Conservative congregation in Paramus and excelled in high school, where he starred in the sport of cross country. He’s been “running” throughout his whole career.
His father, manager of a housewares business, never pressured him to be a doctor, dentist or lawyer, “but my parents insisted that I do well in school and always encouraged me to choose a career and stay with it,” Fields recalled in a previous interview with the Detroit Jewish News.
An economics graduate of New Jersey’s Rutgers University, he entered the work force with IBM in marketing and sales, stayed for six years, then earned an MBA from the Harvard Business School. “I’ve always been interested in marketing and sales because that area deals with people,” he said, “and you can quickly see the results of your actions; you get instant feedback.”
Unlike many of his Harvard classmates who chose careers on Wall Street, Fields picked Ford because the car business enthralled him. “I felt it was really important to go to a company that made something,” he said.
In 1989, Ford was looking for potential executives with product sales promotion and marketing experience as part of a new marketing leadership program. His first job was as a marketing manager for the Thunderbird car line. “I loved cars, so Ford was a perfect fit for me,” reflected Fields, who had a collection of 100 mini cars as a youngster.
By corporate standards, Fields rose pretty quickly through the Ford ranks. He held managerial positions at offices in California, Dearborn and Detroit, living briefly in Farmington Hills and Birmingham during the latter assignments.
In 1996, he became assistant managing director of Ford Argentina in Buenos Aires (where only about 2 percent of the population is Jewish), then managing director a year later when his predecessor took ill. In two years there, he helped turn the affiliate around from a $100 million loss to a $2 million profit.
After that, it was off to Hiroshima, Japan, for several posts at Mazda, leading up to executive vice president and assistant to the president. Only a few weeks later, fate intervened again when the president retired unexpectedly because of ill health — and Field moved right to the top as president and CEO. Ford owned controlling interest of Mazda at the time.
“You must be joking,” was the response from Fields’ wife, Jane, whom he had met in Atlanta, Ga., during his IBM days, when he told her of the promotion. “She just laughed and refused to believe me,” Fields mused. “It was so soon after my previous promotion. But she quickly got used to it.” They have two sons, Zachary, 18, and Max, 16.
Fields had to overcome several obstacles as the “brash young foreign” Mazda chief, including the “element of surprise when they found out I was Jewish,” he recalls. “There are all kinds of religions there … but there certainly are no Jews in Japan.
“But I never experienced any anti-Semitism there, and I have never encountered one iota of discrimination as a Jew during my career at Ford,” he said.
Fields led Mazda through a period of significant transformation, reducing losses through restructuring and a series of cost-cutting measures.
That performance earned Fields’ promotion to executive vice president of Ford of Europe and CEO of the company’s Premier Automotive Group, handling all activities of the company’s premium vehicle business, including cars like Jaguar and Aston Martin.
Bill Ford Jr. then summoned him from Europe to take over the Americas organization during the trying times beginning in 2005. “The growth we’ve all seen in him (Fields) … has been remarkable,” Bill Ford said as part of his recent announcement.
Fields has followed the same basic philosophy throughout his Ford career: “What’s important is that everybody is pulling together to solve issues and not score points,” he maintains. “At the end of the day, it’s all about the company and not individual success.”
Fields’ parents had visited him during some of his overseas assignments, but usually just bridged the global gap with letters and packages containing the Jewish holiday items.
Fields, who has residences in Dearborn and Delray Beach, Fla., declined to be interviewed after his latest promotion, saying in an email he was “ … going to focus on my new role for a while before any interviews or questions.”
By Bill Carroll, Contributing Writer