DETROIT—Jim Hackett has been CEO of Ford Motor Co. for nearly as long as his predecessor, Mark Fields, held the job.
By some measures—Ford's languishing stock price, in particular—seemingly not much has changed from Fields' regime. But from Hackett's perspective, virtually everything has.
And at a stage when his predecessor was under growing pressure from Wall Street and the board of directors, Hackett is digging in for a longer-term stay.
"I see a dramatic improvement in the business," Hackett said in an interview last week at Ford's headquarters. "When I came in, it was my observation that it had been frozen a little bit, like caught in amber. Everything that was great about it was frozen. ... Ford needed to break the amber and start to transform."
Hackett points to changes that have touched on "almost every aspect" of the business, from what vehicles Ford builds to how it designs them. He has revamped the company's organizational structure, cut excess manufacturing costs and instituted other structural changes he says are "not always obvious" to Wall Street analysts. There have been 19 changes to Ford's product plan—nameplates either crossed out or inserted—since his arrival, he said.
Two and a half years in, Hackett finally can direct investors and employees to a sheet-metal embodiment of the philosophies he at times has struggled to convey: the Mustang Mach-E.
The electric crossover, set to reach dealerships late next year, is the first vehicle Hackett and his team could significantly influence. They scrapped plans for a compliance car to instead emphasize performance and design, later taking the controversial step of expanding the Mustang brand to help boost sales and profitability.
"We're hopeful the Mach-E is an exemplary story of the way we're trying to change Ford," Hackett said. "It's an incredible turnaround in speed and quality and innovation, which is what we talked about 30 months ago that we want to bring to the company."
And it's a strategy Hackett plans to bring to other products—including the long-awaited Bronco and the next-generation F-150.
Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas last year suggested the F-150 might be worth more than the entire company, punctuating the pickup's importance to Ford's lineup as well as its balance sheet.
But it's facing more competition than ever.
Fiat Chrysler's Ram has surged to second place in U.S. sales, in part because of a lavish interior that has won customers from its rivals. And a host of new players are set to enter the market as soon as 2021 with electric pickups, including Tesla and Ford partner Rivian.
"The fitness of the kind of competition that comes at us gets better and better," Hackett said. "We can't stand on our laurels here, and we're not."
While the current-generation F-150 upended the industry with its use of an aluminum body, Hackett said the next-gen pickup will focus on connectivity. He didn't divulge timing, but it's expected to go on sale next year as a 2021 model.
"We take the advantages of (aluminum), and we now start to marry the intelligence—the emergence of the connectivity, the awareness of how people use the vehicles," he said. "The intensity of understanding what people do in our F-150s has probably never been higher. We have to keep changing the product for them in ways that they care about."
That's likely to include the next-generation Sync infotainment system, which allows over-the-air software updates, that Ford showcased last month on the Mach-E. Like the Mach-E, the pickup is expected to get a much larger touch screen. The truck will also include a hybrid variant, which Ford says can double as a mobile generator.
While Ford also has plans for a fully electric pickup down the road, Hackett said the flexibility afforded by a hybrid could appeal to more customers.
"For certain jobs to be done, the gasoline engine and the diesel are better solutions," he said. "And so having that range of options for our customers is going to be a big advantage with that line."
After a 33-year career at furniture-maker Steelcase and a stint as interim athletic director at the University of Michigan, some assumed Hackett, who turned 64 in April, essentially would be a transitional leader for Ford. He was on Ford's board when the body decided to oust Fields, and Executive Chairman Bill Ford abruptly asked Hackett to step in.
Hackett, who initially didn't want the job but accepted after talking it over with family, said he never viewed it as a short-term move.
"When you're the CEO of a company, you don't look at your job in 12-month increments or anything like that," he said. "You actually go out much further than that, because the emotional commitment, the physical commitment, the relationship commitment is long enough that you've got to put that date way out there and then you work back."
Still on his to-do list?
In addition to launching the Mach-E, Bronco, F-150 and a spate of other products, he still hopes to convince Wall Street that his methods really have changed the culture at Ford. Ford shares have fallen 18 percent during Hackett's tenure, and Moody's Investor Service recently downgraded Ford's credit rating to junk status.
"I feel like I can still help in ways the transformation requires," he said. "When Bill and I sat down and made this decision ... we just said, 'What's it gonna take to get this turned around?' And we put ourselves out here, and we're working our way through it. I don't get up any day thinking that date's nearer because I still have so much to do."