Ousted Ford CEO Mark Fields had the impossible job of pleasing two masters

Ford CEO Mark Fields is stepping down, to be replaced with board member and Ford Smart Mobility Chairman Jim Hackett.

Like Alan Mulally, the Boeing executive who became Ford CEO before the financial crisis and steered the carmaker through its most challenging episode, Hackett has no prior experience in the auto industry.

He was CEO of furniture manufacturer Steelcase, but he has a close relationship with Ford Chairman Bill Ford and has a reputation for advanced thinking about business and the future.

He had been Chairman of Ford Smart Mobility, the company’s forward-looking division, designed to keep pace with the Tesla and Ubers of the world.

Fields, by contrast, was a consummate insider, a Ford veteran with nearly 30 years under his belt. With a background in sales and marketing, he forged a tight relationship with Mulally and learned to pull in his sharp elbows. As CEO, he was smooth and suave, but he also had to serve two masters: the ongoing disruption of the auto industry; and Ford’s core business, which was hugely profitable.

He did a decent job with the Silicon Valley geekery, but he also had to please Ford’s dealers and the “car guys” in the company — the designers, engineers, and executives who prize the company’s leadership role in SUVs and pickups and who cherish the legacy of the Mustang muscle car.

Ford ChartMarkets InsiderFord has slid all year.

The traditional business was performing well for Ford, and Fields presided over record yearly profits and booming sales. But Wall Street is more interested in high-risk bets on emerging technologies and penalised Ford’s stock price accordingly. Under Fields, is had slipped 30%. Tesla, meanwhile, passed Ford in market cap as its stock surged to new heights.

Ford can’t fund the future without sustaining the past. Fields had the youth and energy to propel the company forward, but he couldn’t devote himself entirely to talk of Ford’s self-disruption.

The company’s new management structure seems designed to alleviate this burden and effectively create an Old Ford and New Ford. Several of Fields lieutenants will now take charge of the auto business while Hackett will presumably be able to push for more rapid change on the Smart Mobility front.

Fields had an increasingly impossible job, but he never actually looked like he was breaking a sweat. He didn’t really fail; rather, he simply had to run a 100-year-old-plus company while the markets fixated on new players who promised to be the Fords of the 21st century.

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