Built Ford Tough

Mark Fields, president of Ford’s Americas operations, has brought the auto giant back from the abyss and into growing profitability. This year, his alma mater recognized his achievements with membership in the Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni.

Thirty years ago, when he was an economics major and a fraternity brother, Mark Fields would have told anyone suggesting that he’d someday be inducted into the Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni: “How long did you just spend at Olde Queens Tavern?”

But Fields RC’83 may have had an inkling that he’d end up in an executive position that would help earn him the honor—in part because of his experiences at Zeta Psi, where he served as pledge master and vice president. “When you live with 49 other guys, and you’re trying to get things done, it teaches you how to motivate people and influence them,” says the Ford Motor Company’s president of The Americas, a division that includes all operations in the western hemisphere.

When he was promoted to the post in 2005, after helping Ford turn profits overseas, Fields had lots of motivating to do. Like its Big Three counterparts, Ford was struggling to stay solvent. But unlike Chrysler and General Motors, it refused government bailout funds and devised a plan to scale back its workforce and emphasize design innovations that would get Ford the attention of car buyers.

I learned you have to be a good listener and always try to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes as you discuss issues or problems or approaches.

Mark Fields, Ford Motor Company’s president of The Americas

Although Ford’s North American division continued to lose money through 2009, it earned $5.4 billion in 2010, or 65 percent of the company’s $8.3 billion operating profit worldwide, according to Fields. And its cars, trucks, and SUVs not only earn high safety ratings, but also have grabbed a growing share of the market, geographically and demographically, the fastest among the 18-to-24-year-old group.

Last summer, the company launched MyFord Touch, “a combination,” Fields says, “of buttons on the steering wheel, voice commands, and touch screens” that control every aspect of the car while linking to phone and internet services. Ford, in fact, depends heavily on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to launch its products and draw consumer feedback. “We’re pushing the envelope to get our message out and to have authentic conversations with potential customers as opposed to just marketing at them,” Fields says.

Paying attention to customers is a lesson he learned from working in other countries, including Japan, where, in the early 2000s, Fields moved the money-losing Ford affiliate Mazda into the black. Exposed to a different culture, “I learned you have to be a good listener and always try to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes as you discuss issues or problems or approaches,” says Fields, who was instrumental several years ago in having Ford donate two Land Rovers for use in a field program run through the Center for Human Evolutionary Studies in the School of Arts and Sciences.

Any company, however, must be profitable, so that funds can be reinvested in better products and, no small thing, make employees happy. Because of 2010’s windfall, each Ford employee received a bonus of at least $5,000. And sales in January and February, especially for fuel-efficient cars like the Fiesta and Focus, exceeded those for the same months in 2010. “When we have that profitable growth,” Fields says, “everybody—employees and consumers—can share in the reward.”

(This story is excerpted from “Star Gazing” in the Spring 2011 issue of Rutgers Magazine.)