Q&A: Ford President and CEO Alan Mulally

Focusing On Ford: Alan Mulally has his eye on the company’s future, but his vision is based on Henry Ford’s philosophy
Photographs courtesy of Ford Motor Co.

It’s no surprise that Alan Mulally, Ford president and CEO, has a corner office at the world headquarters in Dearborn.

What is notable about this 12th-floor executive space is that it has a view of the past: the still-thriving Rouge factory, where Henry Ford’s dream of “a continuous, nonstop process from raw material to finished product” was first realized nearly 90 years ago.

Mulally has said that his job allows him to “stand on Henry Ford’s shoulders.” His office is filled with vestiges of the Ford legacy. (No antiques or oriental rugs or framed photos with world leaders or celebrities on display here.) Showcased, instead, is an enlarged reproduction of a two-page ad that Henry Ford took out in 1924 in the Saturday Evening Post.

Where’s the personal stamp of the man who occupies this corporate suite? It’s the oversized golf bag emblazoned with his name that’s prominently displayed near the conference table.

Mulally loves golf; his handicap hovers between nine and 10. He’s also a dedicated tennis player and voracious reader.

Mulally’s public persona is sunny and optimistic — a demeanor characterized in a business publication that once dubbed him “The Happiest Man in Detroit.” But behind the scenes, however, he’s regarded as brilliant, shrewd, and doggedly tenacious when it comes to achieving his vision for the company he’s been running since 2006.

As evidence, ask Mulally what he carries with him at all times and he fishes two items from his pants pocket: his Ford badge and a laminated card enumerating his vaunted One Ford philosophy, which he is only too happy to recite: “One team, one plan, one goal.”

Recently, amid growing speculation about his eventual successor, the 66-year-old Mulally sat down to chat with Hour Detroit.


I need to get this off my chest: I drove over here today in a Hyundai Sonata.

Oh, dear. Are you OK? [With feigned horror.]

I tried to get a Fusion at the rental place and all they had was a Sonata. So I feel that I have to divulge this to you.

Did you park on Ford property?

In the side lot. Security is probably going through the car right now.

[Chortling] They’ll be inside it. You should check and see if it’s been keyed when you go back.

Seriously, it occurred to me that you had a similar experience on your first day here at Ford, right? I mean, you weren’t even picked up in a Ford vehicle.

No, I think it was a Land Rover. And my first thing is, this is not a Ford. Hmmmm, maybe it’s a limo service or something. And then I drive into the [executive] garage and I’m looking up there and there’s the blue oval: Ford. The blue oval. That’s why I came. So I get out and I look around the garage and there are all Jaguars and Land Rovers and Volvos and Aston Martins and I thought, note to self: What is everyone working on here?

And that was really the first step in your plan to reduce the nearly 100 brands that Ford was producing when you got here to the original vision that Henry Ford had.

LAS VEGAS, NV., January 7, 2011—Ford President and CEO Alan Mulally delivers his third consecutive keynote address at the 2011 International CES which included the introduction of the all-new Focus Electric. Photo by: Sam VarnHagen/Ford Motor Co.

Absolutely. We had become this house of brands — and every Ford was different, all the way around the world. Henry set up Ford in every country around the world because he not only wanted to provide great vehicles to everybody, but he wanted to have a strong business so people could participate and have great jobs and great careers. But he never thought they’d regionalize and not have any synergy.

[Mulally pops out of his chair and heads for the wall featuring the framed reproduction of the Ford advertisement headlined: “Opening the highways to all mankind.”

So he takes this ad out. Jan. 25, 1924. And everybody that owns a car at that time is wealthy and he decides that he wants to open up the highways to all mankind, meaning all of us. So he talks about the universal idea, his vision, that riding on the highways should be within easy reach of all people; it has to be big in scale, with boundless resources, continuous improvement forever. It’ll only be useful if it helps make life easier, pleasanter, and more worthwhile, and be available to millions, as opposed to what was before. But look at this. [Pointing to the last sentence of the ad.] This is the thing that blows me away: He’s on top of his game, he’s a billionaire, he’s successful, and he says, the company views its situation less with pride about what he’s already done, “but with a sincere and sober realization of new and larger opportunities for service to all mankind.”

I was looking for inspiration, for a compelling vision for Ford, and there it was. We’re now accelerating the implementation of Henry’s original vision: Divest the other brands, focus on Ford, full family of vehicles, best in class.

You spent 37 years at Boeing. But when you were a young man you had your heart set on being an astronaut in the Right Stuff program.

I did. I can remember watching TV one night and President Kennedy was giving a speech and he said that the United States was going to go to the moon, and that we were going to do that because it’s going to expand our knowledge of the universe. And even though it was far away, it would be about learning about ourselves. Pretty fantastic stuff! I decided right then that I wanted to help and was going to join the astronaut program.

I joined the Air Force, learned to fly. I really liked art, so I was taking a lot of art classes and economics. I started taking engineering because you need to be really technically competent, so I started taking physics and calculus and just changed my life to go after the astronaut program. [Then], I found out I had a slight color blindness and the first landings were going to be manual, so you really need to be able to see all the shades of gray and stuff, and I couldn’t see it.

Were you heartbroken?

Oh, I was devastated and trying to figure out what to do. But I had a really great thesis adviser at the University of Kansas, and he used to be the head of aerodynamics at Boeing and he asked me to help him with some graduate-school projects. One of them was for Boeing, so he took me to Seattle and … here was Boeing, this huge factory, and it was a beautiful night in The Emerald City and everything was glistening and the doors were opening and here were all these 737s in a row. And I’m going, ‘whoa.’

The next day, he takes me to see the rollout of the 747 and he said, ‘What do you think?’ And I said, ‘This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.’ I knew right there that I wanted to be part of that compelling vision of commercial airplanes.

During those early years at Boeing, you also had a little side business, no?

I started a framing business on the side. I loved art and I loved making things, and it’s very, very exciting because you see all this different artwork and then you help people through how they want to present it. I was the sole employee. I did everything. Nikki [his wife] helped me. I turned half of our house into a little art gallery and had all the samples and mats; I did all the mat cutting, I did all the paper, the back, everything. I remember I was making more money doing that than I was at Boeing as an engineer.

You also started a tennis club.

I started the Boeing Employees Tennis Club — BETC. You know how big a deal it was to have a tennis club in Seattle? It rains a lot. I presented it to Boeing as part of their recreation strategy to have healthy employees. I can remember soliciting 300 members and each of them paid $300. It was my finest hour on sales. I went down to the bank, signed my name on the note, and then we created this tennis club.

I learned so much. The most important thing about an indoor tennis club is your real customers are the ladies because the majority of the play, when you want it filled up during the day, are the women. So I made their locker room twice the size. I did everything for the ladies, and it’s a really successful club to this day.

You have a philosophy called One Life. How does it work?

The idea is that we each decide what we want to do with our life, what we want to contribute to it.

[He reaches for a notepad and draws one big circle with “One Life” written on top and “Life’s Work” on the bottom. Inside that large circle, there are four more circles, labeled “personal life,” “family life,” “work life,” and “spiritual life.”]

So what’s important to me is that I want one integrated life. We had five children, so every Sunday from the time that they were young we had a family meeting. We’d go over the schedule for the next week, who’s doing what, who needed help, any issues we had. Also, we’d clean the house, and I made sure it actually got cleaned because I always saved the allowances to the end, so everybody would come to the family meeting. And then we’d go over everything, everybody’s life; they all had an integrated life. So anything you needed, wanted, we’d build it right into the calendar. If the kids had ballet or dance or a meeting or soccer, we’d put it all in the calendar and they’d come to work with me for rollouts and first flights and stuff. You just build it into the calendar so that everybody was managing their life and we’re all managing it together so we have one life.

And you’ve been doing that …

Forever. And I do it for myself: Every morning, I look at my schedule and I decide, is that what I really want to do? Where I’m spending my time: Is that consistent with where I’m going and what I want to contribute to? Also, I look at it every night, and if it’s not consistent, then I change it right there.

Do you still get a chance to fly?

No, I’m not current [on the required hours].

But when you’re in the Ford jet do you ever get the desire to head for the cockpit and take over?

I don’t. But it always makes me feel good that I could help out if needed. I’ll tell you who really enjoys it are my colleagues that fly with me. They love it that they have backup sitting there with them.

Is there anything that you haven’t done or experienced in your life that you are dying to do? Like a Bucket List?

Take my wife to the Galapagos Islands.

What about what you want to do?

I love golf, I love tennis, I love reading, hanging out with my family, and I love work … there’s nothing that I can think of that’s more fun than what I’m doing right now.

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