By David Welch Ford (F) Chairman William C. Ford Jr. has talked with former Mercedes-Benz boss Eckhard Cordes about a top post with the struggling U.S. auto company, BusinessWeek Online has learned. Sources familiar with the talks say Cordes is also talking to other auto execs about top jobs.
Cordes, who could not be reached for comment, isn't the first auto-industry star Bill Ford has gone after. Ford admitted he once tried to hire DaimlerChrysler's (DCX) Chairman-elect, Dieter Zetsche, who fixed the Chrysler Group before taking over the parent company last month. And Ford has also chatted with RenaultNissan boss Carlos Ghosn -- another turnaround specialist -- about taking a top job at Ford.
STRETCHED THIN. Neither set of talks panned out, and it's no slam dunk that Cordes will end up at Ford. But clearly Ford family scion Bill Ford Jr. sees the need to bring in some top talent for his company. Indeed, his search for big-name executives has led to speculation that he doesn't want to be CEO of the outfit. He took over Ford unexpectedly in October, 2001, after firing then-CEO Jacques A. Nasser. And Bill Ford has said in the past that if the board found someone more qualified, he would step aside and serve as non-executive chairman.
Company insiders swear that despite the speculation that Bill Ford Jr. wants to relinquish the CEO job, he plans to keep it for the long term. But he's interested in finding a change agent to energize the company. And he could use some help fixing Ford's North America business. Although the corporation is profitable, it lost $907 million in North America in the second quarter, ended June 30. Through September, its market share fell to 17.7%, from 18.4% in the year-ago period. And since January, the stock price has fallen from $14.71 a share to a $9.32 (where it closed on Oct. 6).
The company has some inhouse talent, and Ford recently promoted several of its executives to top jobs. The issue, says one source close to Bill Ford, is that he has just enough managers who are prepared for their jobs. Management is stretched so thin that he could have a problem if one quits or retires.
MANAGEMENT MOVES. Even so, Ford's top brass has said it needs to push the company's product-development organization to build cars with more expressive styling. Analysts say that could require a change agent from outside Ford. "What Bill Ford is looking for [his] Dieter Zetsche or Bob Lutz," says David E. Cole, executive director of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. "Who will run the product development organization and drive it?"
Cordes would be a valuable addition. He left Daimler in August after being passed over for the chairmanship, which will be vacated by Jürgen Schrempp in January. Cordes had turned around Daimler's $42 billion commercial-vehicle division, transforming it into a big moneymaker, before taking the top job at the company's Mercedes unit last year. During his tenure at Mercedes, he had started to cut costs and address the quality problems that plagued the division in recent years.
Talks with Cordes come just after Bill Ford made several management moves. The carmaker promoted Mark Fields in September from executive vice-president of its European operations to executive vice-president of the Americas. Ford then gave Fields' old job to Lewis Booth, who oversaw the Ford division in Europe.
THE WEIGHT OF FAMILY. Still, Bill Ford would find a job if the right person was interested in joining the carmaker, according to company spokesperson Jon Pepper. "Bill is not looking to hand things off," Pepper says. "He's looking to add talent."
Whether the chairman can bring in top players remains to be seen. Ford executives have long tried to run the company knowing that the Ford family -- whose stock gives them 40% voting control -- sit on their shoulders. Zetsche and Ghosn have risen at outfits without family control, so they have the final word on all decisions, points out a source close to Bill Ford. And players like Cordes, who was a candidate for the top Daimler job, may figure that there will always be a Ford in their future.
Welch is Detroit bureau chief for BusinessWeek