Tough Love at Ford
Don't expect a chatty, lighthearted visit if you get called to Anne Stevens's office. For the past six months, Stevens has been Ford Motor Co.'s tough-love ambassador, delivering a message the company's 300,000 employees don't want to hear: The pity party is over. "Look, we're out of time," she told executives at one recent meeting, dispensing with the PowerPoint formalities prevalent at the notoriously traditional automaker. "We've got to execute this [turnaround] plan effectively because we won't have another chance."
The need for an urgent recovery at Ford has been evident on Wall Street for some time, especially as the company's numbers have tanked. Ford was profitable in 2005, largely because of its lending arm, but its North American auto operations--the core of its business--lost a staggering $1.6 billion. Projections for 2006 are scarcely better, with consumers fleeing gas-guzzling SUVs, like the Explorer, that have been Ford's mainstay for more than a decade. Last week Moody's, the credit rating agency, said it might cut Ford's ratings further into junk territory.
Last year CEO Bill Ford promoted Mark Fields, who helped turn Mazda around, making him the top executive for North America. And he made Stevens, formerly in charge of North American business operations, Fields's chief operating officer. In January, the company laid out the duo's formal agenda for getting the auto giant back on track: the "Way Forward" plan.
"Out of touch." The "Mark and Anne" plan, as it's dubbed in Detroit, is supposed to cut at least $6 billion in costs by 2010, stabilize Ford's declining market share, and return the company to profitability by 2008. Stevens is responsible for many of Way Forward's nuts-and-bolts reforms. Chief among them: instilling a "change or die" mentality at a company known as one of America's most hidebound institutions. "The company was so successful for so many years," she says, "that most employees were out of touch with the reality of how quickly the marketplace was changing."
Stevens, 57, is a seasoned Ford insider--and also the highest-ranking female exec in company history. She came to Ford from Exxon in 1990 and has led operations in Europe and Latin America. Her status as an influential woman may enhance her credibility as an agent of change. While some female executives insist that their gender should have nothing to do with their role in the executive suite, Stevens sees it differently. "It's very inspirational to see people succeed who didn't have all the stats lined up in their favor," she says. "I've had people come into my office and say the fact that I'm a woman and I've succeeded has given them hope."
While a major part of Ford's reform has been brute force, with mass layoffs and factory closings, even more difficult may be the hearts-and-minds campaign central to Stevens's portfolio. Some of the tactics include scrapping bland car designs for bolder efforts meant to excite consumers and employees alike, improving communication among insular, far-flung departments, and holding regular webcasts updating employees on improvements and urging more. Stevens, an engineer by training, has been Ford's quality czar, relentlessly preaching the need to catch up to the standards set by "Mr. T."--Toyota.