2017-05-25 12:16:02
Jim Hackett, Ford’s New C.E.O., Has a History of Turnaround Stories

12:16, May 25 114 0

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Jim Hackett made his career by turning Steelcase, an office-furniture maker in Michigan, into one of America’s most admired companies. More recently, he rejuvenated one of the country’s most storied college athletic programs, at the University of Michigan, and hired its high-profile football coach, Jim Harbaugh.

Now he is embarking on an even more prominent fix-it job in Michigan: Ford Motor.

On Monday, Ford announced Mr. Hackett, 62, as its chief executive, saying he would be able to reshape the company to compete in the next generation of automobiles.

Mr. Hackett replaces Mark Fields, who had led the company for three years. Mr. Fields had come under pressure because of a decline in profits and Ford’s sagging stock price, as well as concerns about whether Ford was falling behind on self-driving cars.

In Mr. Hackett, Ford is taking on a chief executive with a track record of refocusing a manufacturing company through several downturns and sharp shifts in its industry. But the scale of Ford, the nation’s No. 2 automaker behind General Motors, dwarfs that of Steelcase, the furniture maker he ran. Last year, Steelcase had revenue of $3.1 billion; Ford had revenue of $151 billion.

There is no doubt that Ford is changing up the personality at the top of its ranks. Mr. Fields was known as a polished salesman and marketer. Mr. Hackett is known for his blunt talk about performance. Friends and colleagues described Mr. Hackett as a direct manager who calls out those who fall short.

“He’s a visionary,” William C. Ford Jr., the company’s chairman, said at a news conference on Monday. “But he’s not just a futurist. He’s a very good operating executive.”

Mr. Hackett has said those qualities stem from his days as an offensive lineman on Michigan football teams in the 1970s and the influence of the team’s renowned coach, Bo Schembechler.

At Steelcase, based in Grand Rapids, Mr. Hackett often recommended that managers read “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a book by the coach on leadership. A regular email to Steelcase employees was called “Hackett’s Huddle.” He often told colleagues, “You either get better or get worse” — and attributed the quotation to Mr. Schembechler.

“He had a lot of respect for Bo, and a lot of people in Michigan connected to that,” said James P. Keane, who worked with Mr. Hackett for 17 years at Steelcase and succeeded him as chief executive.

Mr. Hackett was hardly a star player on the football team. He was a third-string center whose main job was to face off in practice against the starting defensive unit, a punishing and thankless task.

Once, when Mr. Hackett grew frustrated, Mr. Schembechler gave it to him straight: He was too slow and too small to be a starting center. But the coach said Mr. Hackett was making a big contribution by pushing the defense and other offensive linemen to work harder. Mr. Hackett soldiered on with pride.

“He was a tough, hard-nosed guy,” said John Wangler, a quarterback during Mr. Hackett’s senior year. “A guy you want in a foxhole with you.”

Mr. Hackett was born in London, Ohio, 30 miles west of Columbus. His father and his brother played football at nearby Ohio State, Michigan’s top rival. But Mr. Hackett was not good enough to get a roster spot and went to Michigan, graduating in 1977 with a degree in finance.

He joined Steelcase in 1980, rose through the sales and marketing ranks and showed a feel for future trends. Long before it became the norm in American offices, he had his managers cluster their workstations together without walls or dividers to facilitate teamwork.

When Steelcase slumped in 1994, he was named chief executive, at age 39. He tried to get the company’s executives and designers to think more about furniture’s full role in a working environment, bringing in sociologists and anthropologists to help designers understand how people work, Mr. Keane said.

Under his leadership, Steelcase introduced new lines designed for open-plan offices, video screens and work teams. Along the way, Mr. Hackett built up a network of contacts in the companies using new work environments, especially in the technology industry, relationships that would come in handy later at Ford.

He and Mr. Ford met while working on state tax issues. Both are informal Midwesterners, and they clicked. They also shared an interest in football: Mr. Ford’s family owns the Detroit Lions.

Mr. Hackett joined Ford’s board in 2013 and retired as Steelcase’s chief executive a year later. At the same time, he took a turn as a football hero at Michigan.

With the football team floundering and the athletic department in disarray, he stepped in as interim director of athletics and set his sights on hiring Mr. Harbaugh, a former Michigan Wolverine. Mr. Harbaugh was by then a star N.F.L. coach who could command a lofty salary, and he had turned down Michigan in the past.

But Mr. Hackett persisted, calling the coach weekly, and he eventually landed his man, delighting fans and alumni.

“Without Jim Hackett, there’s no Jim Harbaugh,” said John U. Bacon, author of best-selling books on Michigan football.

In February 2016, Ford directors visited several Silicon Valley companies, and Mr. Ford was impressed by how many executives knew Mr. Hackett well.

“Every one of them gave Jim a hug,” Mr. Ford recalled on Monday. “A number of them said: ‘My gosh, he’s one of the real, original thinkers. You guys are really lucky to have him on your board.’”

A month later, Mr. Hackett left the University of Michigan and was hired to run Ford’s future-oriented “mobility services” division.

Mr. Ford said the board of directors had had discussions for some time about the company’s leadership, and the pressure for change increased after profit dropped in the first quarter. After a board meeting on Friday, he and Mr. Fields met, and they “decided that it was the right time for him to resign,” Mr. Ford said.

The board then asked Mr. Hackett to take the helm. “The board was very excited by the prospect of Jim potentially becoming our leader,” Mr. Ford said.