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Alan Mulally: The Outsider at Ford

The changes at Ford initiated by CEO Mulally, a former aerospace guy, have meant the difference between death for the automaker and merely being sick

Almost 30 months after Alan R. Mulally left Boeing (BA) to become chief executive of Ford Motor (F), it's still easy to peg him as an industry outsider. Talking to Wall Street analysts in November, Mulally described the debut of the tiny, fuel-sipping Ford Ka at the "Paris Air Show" when he meant the "Paris Motor Show." Earlier this year, Mulally showed how he'd tried to stop appending an airplane doodle to his signature, but struggled to ink a car instead. "Rats. I still haven't got the car down," he said, in the "aw shucks" Kansas delivery that has become as familiar in Detroit as his off-the-rack blazers and shirts.

Outsider CEOs have a decidedly varied track record. Some bring in their own people and impose a jarring management philosophy on a corporate culture, as Robert Nardelli did at Home Depot with such mixed results that the board pushed him out. Some are unsuited to running an unfamiliar business. Former S.C. Johnson CEO William Perez's 13-month stint at Nike (NKE) comes to mind. Others tread more softly and succeed, like Eric Schmidt, the former Novell (NOVL) guy who runs Google (GOOG). Mulally arguably falls into the latter category. Since arriving he has left most of the team he inherited in place and quieted talk that an aerospace guy couldn't run an automaker.