You got the sense with outgoing CEO Jim Hackett that he was never quite accepted at Ford. It felt like every story about him was obligated to remind you that he used to be the CEO of a furniture company, an old job that may have undercut his credibility from the get-go. Incoming CEO Jim Farley won’t have that problem.
That’s because Farley has spent decades in the car business, including 17 years at Toyota and the last 12-plus years at Ford. Farley worked his way up the ladder at both places but his Toyota experience stands out because it was Farley who was a key player in Scion and set out, in his early days, to be everything Detroit wasn’t.
Take the following excerpts from Bill Vlasic’s 2011 book Once Upon A Car, in which Farley is a main character. Once Upon A Car is Vlasic’s account of the Big Three before, during, and after the Great Recession, and while the landscape was a bit different back then—SUVs and big trucks were not nearly as in vogue—Farley started with a lot of the right ideas.
Here he is in 2005:
Farley lived and breathed Toyota. He had loved the company from the day he joined it fifteen years earlier, when Toyota was an underdog fighting for respect in the American market. Farley had basically devoted his life to winning customers away from what he saw as declining, inferior carmakers such as Ford. To Farley, the car business was a highly refined arena of combat, and he had no doubt he was on the winning side. “We’re the good guys, the ones wearing the white hats,” he said. Farley believed that Toyota made the safest and most sensible, affordable, and fuel-efficient cars in the world. Ford was a dinosaur that lived on an unsustainable diet of gas-guzzling pickup trucks and monster SUVs. There was no question which company was growing and which one was fading.
Safe, sensible, affordable, fuel-efficient? That does sound pretty great! And also not really where the industry is in 2020. New cars are certainly safer and more fuel-efficient, sure, but you can forget sensible and affordable, at least in the North American market, as many automakers—including Ford, of course—move to stop selling small cars here.
Back to 2005: Farley then was a key player in Scion, a doomed project in the end but also one that showed what the possibilities could be, in addition to how stodgy the Big Three were in general.
Farley had a front-row seat:
Farley inhabited the job completely—hanging out with twentysomething trendsetters on the coasts, learning why they chose their favorite products, from computers to clothes to cars. “You need to love your customer, feel their joy, understand their pain,” he said. “You have to get so close to them you can smell their breath.” But as sensitive and idealistic as he sounded, Farley had an edge to him. Other automakers were the enemy vying for the same turf, and Farley would never give an inch. When he heard that Bob Lutz, the vice chairman of General Motors, had called the shoebox-shaped Scion xB “weird-looking,” those were fighting words. “I could care less about Detroit,” Farley said. “Give me a break. Detroit got its ass kicked trying to market to kids.”
Finally, it’s not really the point of this blog, but I would be remiss in not including the following excerpt, which is the one most media outlets are quoting from in their Farley profiles today. You will see why.
What Jim Farley really wanted to do was kick the daylights out of General Motors. “I’m going to beat Chevrolet on the head with a bat,” he said with a slightly wicked smile. “And I’m going to enjoy it.” There was a saying going around Ford: GM was like the kid who was born on third base and yells out, “Hey, Ma, I hit a triple!” Farley and his fellow Ford executives and workers were ready to rumble. They were on a hot streak and didn’t care if Dan Akerson had a million Volts to sell. GM had gotten a bailout, but Ford had much more. In 2010, the company reported its best year in more than a decade—$6.6 billion in profits. The Blue Oval was shining brighter by the day. The only way the company’s success could be better was to have some old-fashioned competition with the guys on the other side of town.
This was like the glory days again—Ford versus GM, let the better car company win. “We’re going to beat on them, and it’s going to be fun,” said Farley. “Fuck GM. I hate them and their company and what they stand for. And I hate the way they’re succeeding. Ford is back because people trust us. And that is a powerful message. I’m a car guy. I wake up each morning thinking about cars. Watch out. We’re only going to get better.”
The narrative about Farley is that he has the right kind of experience, and is “hard-charging,” and is a “car guy,” and is expected to push Ford further in the direction it was already headed in, which mainly means more electric. And while that all sounds fine, and even typical of how new automaker CEOs get described, my main wish is that Farley remembers his days at Toyota, when he was proud to be working for a company that made cars that were safe, sensible, affordable, fuel-efficient, and a little weird.
I mean I don’t have any illusions about what Ford is going to spend the next few years doing (mainly making and selling SUVs and F-150s) but just the fact that the incoming CEO is even aware of other possibilities gives me some minor measure of hope. Also, he knows us.