The story of how Alan Mulally saved Ford

A book review
By Al Vinikour

(March 31, 2012) Heroes come in many forms: someone who saves a child from a burning building or pulls a pregnant woman from a crashed vehicle that’s ready to explode or even a foster parent who takes in a house full of handicapped children and gives them a better life.

But there’s another kind of hero that normally wouldn’t be recognized in that capacity and in his new book, American Icon, Bryce G. Hoffman highlights arguably the latest and most visible corporate hero in the world, Ford Motor Company CEO Alan Mulally.

Anyone who can read and has a pulse is at least somewhat familiar with the turmoil the American auto industry went through during its near-death experiences within the past five years. Two of the three major U. S. auto companies — namely General Motors and Chrysler — did in fact declare bankruptcy and if it weren’t for the life-saving financial assistance from Washington the American auto industry, including possibly thousands of suppliers, could very well have disappeared off the face of the earth.

The logical question to ask is if the American auto manufacturers were so close to death, how is it that Ford didn’t become part of this mix? The answer is quite simple; Ford had Alan Mulally…and the other two didn’t.

Business people who become household words are a rare commodity. For every Bill Gates and Steve Jobs there’s an Ernie Breech and a Kelly Johnson that most would have never heard of. However, every once-in-a-while there comes a colorful character so right for the time that his (or her) presence could have been scripted by Martin Scorsese. Alan Mulally, at right, is one of those rare individuals.

Mulally achieved his fame at Boeing where he began working in the late-60s as an aeronautical engineer. He eventually worked his way up to head Boeing’s Commercial Airplane Company and along the way “fathered” the “Triple Seven” (Boeing’s 777). And under his leadership he and his team managed to save the company after the crippling events of September 11, 2001.Those opportunities come along once in a lifetime, if at all. However, in Mulally’s case they happened twice.

Flash back to the middle of the most recent full decade of the 21st Century. Through a history of repetitious behavior Ford Motor Company was tap dancing on a land mine while wearing diver’s boots. The company went from producing cash cow-big SUVs to facing oblivion in what seemed like the blink of an eye. And they were in the best shape of the Big 3!

The then CEO was William Clay Ford, Jr., great-grandson of the company’s scion, Henry Ford. In addition to representing the company he was also the chosen one to represent the entire Ford family, who through a special voting block of shares still controlled the company. Bill Ford is anything if not an honest man and totally devoid of an inflated ego so prevalent to the industry. He knew he was in over his head and needed help from an expert if the company were to survive and he and his minions went on a search to find the right person.

All roads led to Boeing’s Alan Mulally. For some reason he was ignominiously passed over when Boeing’s CEO position became vacant and long story short, Boeing’s loss was Ford’s gain. (Just an example of how fleeting success can be, as of this writing, Boeing is facing one of the deepest crises of its existence and Ford Motor Company is now breathing on its own.)

To say Alan Mulally is affable is to say Col. Sanders had a special thing for hens. His stock-in-trade is his Midwestern honestly and plain speaking (he’s from Kansas) and his disdain for suits (he always wears sport jackets and slacks). He’s historically been comfortable talking with presidents and factory workers alike. The fact he’s the antithesis of the mud wrestling environment that Ford executives had existed in while protecting their own turf and bonuses caused many to predict he’d last less time than the Edsel brand.

His new underlings’ first clue should have been when he was asked what his qualifications would be to head up an industrial complex whose products contained thousands of individual parts, he said, “That won’t present a problem because for 35 years I’ve been at a company whose products contains four million parts and the failure of any one of them could cause it to fall out of the sky.”

Granted, Mulally had a steep learning curve regarding the auto industry and Ford in particular but his track record at Boeing made the transition easier than it would for others. He had a clear vision of what had to be done and all the stars needed to be aligned and he was just the maestro to make it happen.

Hoffman, at left, describes how Mulally was able to coalesce the herd of cats he inherited to make the changes that would save the company. It was only through a Herculean grasp of people skills and trust in himself and his plan that completely changed the culture of “I” at Ford to “us.” Though far from being a figurehead he never took individual credit for anything – it was always “the team.”

The way Hoffman weaves the story reads like a palace intrigue novel. It’s quite evident he had complete access to the inner chambers of Ford’s 12th Floor Executive Offices and to Mulally and his team at every turn. He has covered Ford as part of his “day job” at the Detroit News and no doubt earned the trust of those on the inside up to, and including Bill Ford himself. Like Bill Vlasic’s recent book, Once Upon a Car, the machinations of corporate hardball read better than a Robert Ludlum novel.

Whether the reader is part of the auto industry, an automotive enthusiast or simply someone looking for a terrific read, American Icon is for you. Just like a savior like Alan Mulally happens only once in a blue moon, so, too, does a book so well written and captivating as American Icon occur.   
American Icon, by Bryce G. Hoffman, is published by Crown Business, New York, NY. It’s available at book stores and at