Ford CEO Mulally shares Toyota's vision

With its crosstown rivals on the ropes, Ford Motor f is painting itself as Detroit's standout — the only U.S. automaker weathering the auto sales depression without taxpayer life support.

While that may be a short-term accomplishment, Ford is reaching for much more. CEO Alan Mulally is trying to guide the 105-year-old company closer to the model of a foreign rival he makes no secret of having long admired: Toyota. tm In doing so, the company is anticipating how the auto world may be realigned by the time the global economy finally rebounds.

"I would love people in the future to say, 'There's Toyota and Honda hmc and Ford,' " says Ford's North American chief Mark Fields. "We have the goods to do it."

In more than two years on the job, Mulally has tried to instill in Ford Toyota-like discipline and global product integration. He is intent on polishing into a jewel the Ford brand that had been allowed to become ho-hum. Like the Japanese company's famously long view, Mulally wants to look decades down the road, not months.

Make no mistake: Ford's emulation of the industry's halo company doesn't mean it's in the same league, yet. Not with the heavy debt load it still is trying to cut, a product portfolio in the U.S. still lacking in highly profitable small cars, and improved reliability still trying to erase missteps of past years in consumers' minds.

"Ford is being Ford. They aren't in as good of shape as you think," says Jim Hall of 2953 Analytics.

Ford was the financially sickest of the Detroit Big 3 when Mulally took over. That's hard to believe now with the situation so dire for General Motors gm and Chrysler. In recent days, the Obama administration forced out GM CEO Rick Wagoner and gave it 60 more days of limited financial support along with orders to accelerate a drastic restructuring and downsizing. And it judged Chrysler as no longer able to stand alone, giving it 30 days to conclude an alliance with Italy's Fiat as a condition of receiving a loan to facilitate the combination.

Ford has tried to float above that turmoil, even as March sales figures due out today are likely to show the industry's worst downturn in decades has yet to hit bottom.

Similarities between Ford, Toyota

The interest of Mulally, who used to drive one of Toyota's Lexus luxury cars before he joined Ford, in his Japanese competitor is more than a case of if-you-can't-beat-'em. The two companies have several things in common: Both still are heavily influenced by their founding families, the Fords and the Toyodas. Both innovated production methods that set standards for the industry. Both set new marks for the treatment of industrial workers.

Lately, they've added a few more common attributes to that list:

•Finances. For the moment, both are losing money, but surviving. Toyota has socked away a lot of savings. Ford lacks that kind of cushion, but Mulally swears it has enough cash to weather the recession without a dime of government loans.

As the economy boomed in late 2006, Mulally raised $23.4 billion in fresh capital by mortgaging much of the company's assets. Despite the credit squeeze that choked off sources of more cash and the industry sales collapse, Ford was able to weather a record $14.6 billion loss in 2008. Now Ford is trying to reduce its unsecured debt by two-thirds and its overall debt from about $36 billion to about $25 billion through a cash-for-debt swap to bondholders that expires Friday.

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