The `Single Minded Kid' Who's Remaking FordKathleen Kerwin
Alex Trotman's bosses could hardly have known. When Ford of Britain offered the 22-year-old Englishman a trainee's post back in 1955, the recruiter's letter stressed that he was expected to make his career at Ford. No problem, figured Trotman, who was already aiming for the executive suite. These days, that framed letter hangs in the chairman's corner office at Ford's world headquarters. Says Trotman: "I was a very single-minded kid."
Over the years, little has deterred Trotman from his goal. Not Ford's past refusal to send foreign managers to the U.S., nor repeated job offers from Chrysler Chairman Lee A. Iacocca. Now, Trotman is applying that driving ambition to a massive overhaul of Ford. Succeed or fail, it will leave his mark indelibly on the world's No.2 carmaker.
HANDS ON. By all accounts, Trotman has long stood out at the once stiffly hierarchical company. Insiders say he's a plain-spoken, driven executive who sticks to his course. Ford of Europe chief Albert Caspers remembers how in the late 1970s, Trotman--then running Ford's troubled European truck unit--stunned managers used to polite corporate double-talk when he declared that "if we can't make the truck business profitable, we should get the hell out of it." But Trotman's straight-shooting wasn't reserved only for those below him. He once snapped at Henry Ford II when the auto mogul questioned his decision to give a new car different names in Britain and Germany.
If Trotman speaks his mind, he has won the allegiance of many Ford managers by encouraging others to do so as well. He eschews formality, and heavily scripted meetings have given way to wide-ranging debate. "He's a hands-on executive, very warm and people-friendly," says David R. Gunderson, a key Ford executive now assigned to Mazda Motor Corp. "He's got an open-door style that sets the tone." Insiders say he's a demanding, but appreciative boss. One manager remembers Trotman sending thank-you notes to all involved in a grueling project requiring endless 15-hour days.
Trotman is also shrewd in winning the backing of his key lieutenants. Richard A. Ogren, director of competitive analysis, says that Trotman had "more or less" made up his mind to globalize Ford when he asked top execs to study it further in late 1993. As the plan unfolded, Trotman included a growing circle of operating managers in the detailed decision-making. He knew these were the people who would make the reorganization work--or could undercut it, if they felt shut out. Still, while he espouses teamwork, there's no mistaking that he's the boss. After backing debate, he often overrides managers with his views. "I'm doing it anyway," is a Trotman catchphrase.
Trotman's quick wit and a certain low-key charm also work in his favor. The son of a carpet layer, Trotman never strayed far from his regular-guy roots. Visiting an overseas Ford plant, he jokes easily with shop-floor workers. His wife, Valerie, says when she and Alex spend their annual August holiday tramping the moors in Yorkshire, they're greeted warmly in the local pub where "nobody knows who he is, or if they do, they don't care." Avid hikers, the two escape on frequent backpacking trips. And on weekends, Trotman enjoys canoeing the Huron River, which runs near their home.
SAVING THE MUSTANG. Trotman spent his early years in wartime, working-class London. He was seven when an unexploded bomb landed in their yard. Soon after, the family moved to Edinburgh. Trotman won a scholarship to a prestigious boys' school but had to skip college because there was no money. Instead, he became a Royal Air Force navigator.
When his tour ended, Trotman hired on as a management trainee at Ford. From there, he finagled a job in purchasing. "That's where all the hot-dog young guys wanted to be," he recalls, "and I thought of myself as one." After a stint in product planning, where he helped design Ford of Britain's best-seller of the 1960s, the Cortina, he was catapulting up Ford's European ranks. But Trotman wasn't satisfied. Transfers from abroad to the U.S. were near-impossible. So he wangled an offer in 1969 at lower pay and rank, "intended to be refused," he says. "I fooled 'em and took it." Even then, Trotman had to pay his moving expenses.
By the late 1970s, Trotman was a key player in Ford's truck operations, had become a U.S. citizen, and earned an MBA at night. After briefly heading the Asia-Pacific unit, he vaulted into Ford of Europe's top job during its heyday in the late 1980s. But if his tenure was trouble-free, its aftermath wasn't. Europe's recession hit soon after he left to head Ford's U.S. auto business, and the European unit, caught with high costs and a weak product lineup, racked up losses. Trotman admits the good times lulled him into complacency--and he vows he has learned from the mistake. Friends say that explains his urgency in launching Ford 2000 even as U.S. auto sales boom.
While running Ford's North American auto operations in the early 1990s, Trotman pushed hard to cut costs and to improve factory productivity. Those efforts helped turn Ford into Detroit's low-cost manufacturer. Yet non-engineer Trotman bristles at any suggestion he's not a "car guy" whose devotion to design is as great as his focus on profits. He brags that on the first day he drove his new Mustang Cobra last year, he was pulled over for speeding. And Trotman's proudest contribution to Ford folklore is saving the Mustang from extinction. When Ford's other top brass favored killing it in 1989, Trotman backed the team redesigning the classic car. "We wouldn't have this car, if not for him," says designer John J. Telnack.
Still, the very doggedness that saved the Mustang and fueled Trotman's rise could easily turn to inflexibility. He can turn prickly if second-guessed after he has made a decision. "I don't look over my shoulder, and I don't look for anybody to get in my way," he says crisply. Yet as Ford's global reorganization unfolds, his struggle won't be staying the course so much as making mid-route adjustments. Trotman will have to temper his single-minded drive with willingness to learn from mistakes--one more challenge for the ambitious kid from Britain who has already come so far.
JULY 22, 1933: Born, Middlesex, England
1951-55: Flying officer in Royal Air Force
1955: Joined Ford of Britain as trainee
1967: Named director of car-product planning for Ford of Europe
1969-78: Moved to U.S. and rose to top jobs in car and truck planning
1979-84: Became head of European truck operations, then oversaw Asian unit
1984-88: Named president, then chairman of Ford of Europe
1989-93: Appointed head of U.S. auto operations, then worldwide auto unit
1993: Became chairman, president, and CEO of Ford Motor Co.