Washington – Ford is sending its 56-year-old chief into retirement in favour of an older executive who headed an office furniture company for two decades, in the name of high-tech transformation.
Balding, round-faced 62-year-old Jim Hackett has spent his entire career in Michigan, home state of the global automotive giant, has no direct technology background and is a car industry neophyte.
He seems an unlikely successor for the dashing Mark Fields, a 28-year Ford veteran with a Harvard MBA.
Bill Ford, executive chairman and great-grandson of company founder Henry Ford, emphasised on Monday that the industry is in a "time of unprecedented change," with the legacy car companies vying with upstarts like electric-powered Tesla and potentially disruptive new entrants like Google for the upper-hand in a fast-changing automotive landscape.
"All the changes that we've been talking about for some time – well, they're here now," he said.
Ford described Hackett as a "transformational leader."
Hackett headed Michigan-based Steelcase from 1994 to 2014, leading a turnaround that required wrenching layoffs and plant closures, successfully anticipating a trend away from cubicles to open offices, and steering the company through the 2007-2009 Great Recession.
He briefly held an administrative position at the University of Michigan and joined Ford's board in 2013 before taking over Ford Smart Mobility 14 months ago, with responsibility for self-driving cars and ride sharing.
"Jim took a company that defined itself as a furniture maker. And Jim said: 'No, let's imagine the future of the workplace. Let's imagine how people are going to work and want to work in the future. And then let's build our company around that.' And he did that," Ford said.
"In doing so, he grew the company, took them to first in the industry worldwide, and the culture was one of optimism and a feeling that they could get things done easily, because they had a very clear view of the future."
Ideas need to flow "more freely"
Ford said that the company must "speed up our decision-making," concentrate investments "where we can create value," and move "decisively" to tackle underperforming areas.
In February, Ford and Hackett were in California visiting with technology executives. Ford described the reception in Silicon Valley, where Hackett was literally embraced by leaders in much hipper, hotter, more fashionable sectors.
"A number of them said to me, my gosh he's one of the real original thinkers that we know, and you guys are really lucky to have him," he recalled. "To see Jim not only navigate that so well but to be held in such high regard, it made an impression on me."
Under Hackett, Steelcase invested in design consulting firm IDEO in an innovative strategy to boost creativity and distinctive design.
He described the urgency of overcoming the stifling tendencies of larger organisations.
"Over years, what happens in big corporations, the bureaucracies and the hierarchies probably overwhelm what can be faster decision making, clearer understanding, teams working collectively," Hackett said.
Ford described a goal of building a "culture of ideas flowing freely, without regard to hierarchy" under Hackett's leadership.
"Make no mistake, he's not just a futurist. He is a very good operating executive," Ford said. "But what he can do is integrate future thinking into an operation and help seamlessly deliver a future that has been envisioned."