Book review: American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford

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I normally review cars, not books. But the sheer scale of change in the car industry since the downturn of 2008 has seen some significant titles launch.

From car reviewer to book reviewer, then – and the first car book? American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford, by Bryce Hoffman.

It came well recommended. Fellow motoring writer Richard Yarrow received a copy on a press event and rated it “an excellent read” that he would “heartily recommend it to anyone interested in the finer workings of the car industry”. Sounds perfect for this here car industry obsessive.

That I wrote this from onboard a Boeing 777 is significant: Mulally turned around Boeing, assuring him a position amongst the business leader elite and catching the under-pressure eye of Bill Ford. Even recruiting him brings tales to reveal, with which Hoffman sets the tone for the rest of the book thanks to clearly privileged access to the key players.

Mullaly’s appointment, Hoffman explains, was imperative. I hadn’t realised how corrosive the Jac Nasser years were. How Ford’s multi-brand strategy was so misguided.  Ford itself was way down the pecking order of priorities and while Europe, relatively isolated from all this, was left to get on with making great cars, in the US it was in turmoil.

Quite a challenge for anyone. For Mulally, he also had the various challenges of a recalcitrant, self-serving internal culture, a wearied Ford family (that still has ultimate say over the business) – and then the real rocket from above, that global recession.

Hoffman paints a picture of how bad it got. How Ford was turning down the thermostats in winter. How stationary cupboards had no paperclips because POs couldn’t be cleared. How the firm was simply running out of cash. And how Mulally really had to hold his nerve and have faith in both himself and his product plan.

It came good. The corner isn’t turned and Ford still has many challenges, but the title shows the firm in a pretty enviable position by most measures.

I’d have liked more words from Mulally himself. More colour about the other characters on the Ford board, particularly chief-in-waiting Mark Fields. Many journalists also recognise Ford as a leader in social media, and mark this as one of the most obvious way the company is ahead of its rivals – yet no mention of social media guru Scott Monty and the communications overhaul he’s masterminded. An obvious omission.

But as an engaging story of one car company’s strategy to fight back, it scores highly. Mulally is the star, obviously, but rightly so. He did something GM and Chrysler couldn’t. No wonder Ford is seen so differently in the US.

But it’s not a complete story. The Ford turnaround is stull work in progress. I read it as news emerged that Mulally’s companion has been cut due to the failure to meet certain targets. There’s still work to do at Ford.

A blog post in waiting, that: the review of the revised Fight to Save Ford (and Secure the Mulally revolution)…

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