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Private moments with Ford CEO Jim Farley reveal how he works

Behind the scenes, Ford CEO Jim Farley is remaking a 118-year-old automaker with the blessing of Executive Chair Bill Ford.

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No one could have predicted this. 

After all, it's not easy transitioning leadership of a multibillion-dollar company mid-pandemic while at the same time more than doubling the stock price.

So far, Jim Farley seems to be exceeding expectations.

Jim Farley, CEO of Ford Motor Co., is seen here on Aug. 14, 2021, at The Quail, A Motorsports Gathering, as part of the annual Monterey Car Week.
Jim Farley, CEO of Ford Motor Co., is seen here on Aug. 14, 2021, at The Quail, A Motorsports Gathering, as part of the annual Monterey Car Week. Provided by John Brecher for Ford Motor Co.

In his first 365 days, the new Ford CEO is already credited with bringing clarity and direction to an automaker that has struggled in recent years —despite crippling global supply chain disruption triggered by COVID-19, according to current employees and Wall Street analysts.

Farley has worked to rapidly assemble an executive team at Ford Motor Co. that has focused on renewing public confidence — and breathing life into a stock price that sank during the tenure of his two predecessors.

The day before Farley took over on Oct. 1, 2020, Ford stock closed at $6.66. It had lost 40% of its value during the previous three years. But under Farley, Ford shares reached nearly a six-year high of $15.99 on June 3. Ford closed at $15.51 a share on Wednesday.

Ford Motor Co. CEO Jim Farley with a 2021 Mustang Mach-E 4X model outside of the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant in Detroit on Jan. 14, 2021.
Ford Motor Co. CEO Jim Farley with a 2021 Mustang Mach-E 4X model outside of the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant in Detroit on Jan. 14, 2021. Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press

Farley had promised to return value to Ford retirees and other investors.

He replaced the chief financial officer on Day 1, recruited an advanced technology chief from Apple (who previously worked at Tesla), poached a digital information chief credited with tripling Lowe's online business, beefed up the Ford operation in Washington, D.C., created a job for diplomat Jon Huntsman and put into place the company's first racial equity director.

Farley now works hand-in-hand with one of the nation's most respected environmental leaders on a global effort to shape policy in response to climate change.

He has announced the greatest expansion of the company in its 118-year history, with billions of dollars in investment in Kentucky, Tennessee and Michigan to build all-electric and hybrid trucks, SUVs and battery factories. He also has shut down plants in India and South America that, critics say, drained profits for too long.

Analyst Adam Jonas of Morgan Stanley said on May 5, "It’s not too late for Ford to stage another comeback under Jim Farley."

And, it appears, Jonas was right.

F-150 Lightning behind the scenes

When Farley met with his team planning the global reveal earlier this year of the first all-electric F-150 pickup truck, hetalked about this moment in time. He wanted to be sure people in the room understood the historical significance of electrifying America's bestselling truck.

"It was almost like a coach talking to a team, building them up before they were going into the game of their life," Suzy Deering, global chief marketing officer, told the Free Press. "It quickly turned to, 'Are we leaning in as aggressively as we need to? Are we holding ourselves back because we don’t want to take the risk? Do we have the confidence?' It’s like he gets into a zone."

At the same time, Farley is transparent about not having all the answers. 

Suzy Deering, global chief marketing officer at Ford, said CEO Jim Farley is like a coach talking to his pro sports team as it prepares for the championship game.
Suzy Deering, global chief marketing officer at Ford, said CEO Jim Farley is like a coach talking to his pro sports team as it prepares for the championship game. Ford Motor Co.

"Being vulnerable about what you don’t know, it creates curiosity and ambition to go figure it out," Deering said. "There are big problems we have to solve involving the industry, infrastructure — and the part that's great is we're not going to fake it until we make it ...  we can say we don’t know, let's go figure it out. ... It's making us all better. "

'Surprisingly emotional'

Behind the scenes, Farley's approach to leadership is described by employees as intense yet thoughtful and even disarming. 

Farley has eliminated a lot of meetings, cut the quantity of PowerPoint presentations. 

No question, virtual meetings by Zoom during the pandemic have left most workers nationwide feeling disconnected from colleagues, tethered to computers at home while they do laundry and dishes and run carpool between assignments.

Somehow Farley, 59, has found a way to bring teams together at Ford with an approach that seems to create connection and empathy, employees say. He now starts meetings with a "check-in" and asks people to share something about themselves.

"In general, he'll ask how you're doing personally," said one employee who, like some others in this report, didn't want to be named while speaking about the boss. "Sometimes, it elicits surprisingly emotional things. One guy mentioned something in his life where people were almost in tears. It's like a way that shows we're all people with shared experiences, and let's take a minute with each other."

Colleagues later texted the worker to offer to talk, and support him. Others have confessed that these post-quarantine times are really tough, they may be having issues with children or parents, going through divorce. Other times, questions are more lighthearted, like where people worked their first jobs.

"Everybody is expected to work really hard. It's a really intense environment," said the employee,  who has worked at Ford under four CEOs. "I think things are more intense because Jim's a more intense guy. And he's going to challenge people to defend their ideas."

No fear

At the same time, no one interviewed alluded to fear or intimidation in the ever-changing environment. Complaints in public Ford forums have waned since Farley took the helm.

“The momentum is something that’s very different," Kumar Galhotra, president of the Ford Americas and International Markets group, told the Free Press. "The pace of decision-making, the pace of electrification, the pace of tackling tough challenges."

Kumar Galhotra, now president of Americas and International Markets Group at Ford, said the atmosphere under CEO Jim Farley is intense, focused and clear. Galhotra is pictured here at Ford World Headquarters in Dearborn in 2019.
Kumar Galhotra, now president of Americas and International Markets Group at Ford, said the atmosphere under CEO Jim Farley is intense, focused and clear. Galhotra is pictured here at Ford World Headquarters in Dearborn in 2019. Romain Blanquart, Detroit Free Press

Farley asks his teams to summarize what was accomplished at the end of meetings and next steps. It keeps everyone on track and focused rather than drifting between endless conference calls, as can be the case in corporate America

Overall, Farley works to inspire people to be better, Galhotra said. 

"A fear-based system isn’t very productive or sustainable," he said. "Fear and anxiety actually takes up bandwidth necessary for creative thinking. We can’t have employees feeling fear and anxiety. We have so many incredible challenges and opportunities in front of us."

Executive Chair Bill Ford, great-grandson of the company founder, works with Farley on issues, including electric vehicle expansion, hiring, mergers and acquisitions, company culture and reputation.

“Bill is amazing," Farley said Wednesday. "We collaborate often and I value his leadership immensely."

Farley told the Free Press during an interview in late September, "There is high tension in the transformation."

The mix of executives he's hiring is highly strategic, bringing new skills to a seasoned operation, with an eye toward the ballooning profits at its all-electric competitor Tesla.

While the $11 billion in new battery projects announced last month in Kentucky and Tennessee (with $7 billion from Ford) dominated headlines, Farley noted that the company is also investing money into its home state. . Ford has announced $950 million in investments at the Dearborn Rouge Plant alone for the all-electric F-150 Lightning.

"We're expanding in Michigan. I couldn't be any clearer about that," he said. "We're investing $7.7 billion in Michigan to retain 7,000 jobs and those are the Dearborn campus, Corktown (train station campus in Detroit), change at Van Dyke and Livonia transmission over to electrical components. It's amazing ..."

Ford sees itself as making big gains and "pulling ahead" in its effort to compete, Farley said.

New battery plants create freedom for the company that will prove transformational, Farley said.

"It's happening at Ford," he said. "I don't think anyone is making a commitment to carbon neutral manufacturing in the U.S. and this puts us on the map as a leader. ...We have the best team we've ever had. And if I could give them all a big hug with a mask on, I would. I'm not joking, For me, as the grandson of an hourly worker at Ford, I'm so proud of all the work the Ford team has done."

Emmanuel Rosner, a Deutsche Bank analyst, said earlier this month that new sales data shows Ford eating into General Motors' market share.

More than talk

Farley's style earns praise from an expert in the field of businessleadership.

"By making decisions, by getting things done, he isn't just talking," said Tom Giberson, who teaches organizational leadership at Oakland University in Rochester and trains executives globally. "People are very sensitive to hypocrisy. It's common for people to report to me that leaders talk the talk and don't walk the walk. Cynicism leads to dysfunction. Jim Farley is role modeling what he wants from people."

Farley focuses on reminding people of their humanity. Yet he is more demanding than his predecessors and willing to work as hard or harder than anyone, employees say.

He is in a hurry to get the iconic company where it needs to go.

"When I was first talking to Jim about Ford, he said that we have five years to completely transform this place to make sure Ford is a relevant and leading company in the next 100 years," Doug Field, who led development of the Tesla Model 3, told the Free Press in September after being hired by Ford.

Farley is candid about challenges ahead — whether he's talking to staff or Wall Street investors.

"Jim Farley has taken some decisive actions and is really executing his plan. Before, there was a lot of discussion but we didn't see a lot of it being implemented," said Jeff Windau, analyst at Edward Jones. "You’re seeing Jim Farley leading the company in the direction it needs to go to continue to be competitive. At times the innovation process can be more nebulous with a lot of thoughts about how the future should look. But you actually have to take actions to drive and get there."

Headaches

Farley has said cutting billions of dollars in Ford's historically high warranty costs is essential. The recently debuted Ford Bronco had faulty roofs and Ford last month recalled its award-winning Mustang Mach-E for problems related to the windshield installation.

Farley, on the day he did a series of one-on-one national news interviews about major battery investments in Kentucky and Tennessee, calmly responded to questions about why the Mach-E had quality issues. He didn't deflect or blame. 

"We have to fix our quality," he told the Free Press on Sept. 28. "It’s a headwinds for the company. ...We're going to deal with any kind of issue quickly and immediately and completely. So we’ll do everything we can to make it right for customers."

Admitting challenges

Farley's direct approach gets noticed by industry observers who say few corporate leaders so comfortably discuss problems and challenges.

"Just the candor of Farley saying, 'Yes, we have these issues' and 'Yes, we're taking steps to make things better,' you get the feeling that Farley will get there," said Windau, the Edward Jones analyst. "It's not just lip service but he truly means that and he's truly going to push to make it better. Others did mean it, too. He just comes across as the person who's actually going to take action and follow up and make sure things will get better. ... Jim Farley has been doing a great job."

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It's a dramatic shift at Ford.  Industry observers said the financial wounds at Ford were too often self-inflicted and avoidable, and people found fault with predecessor Jim Hackett's cerebral communications style.

Farley has no loud critics in what may be a honeymoon period. His performance so far has garnered positive attention from analysts at Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, JP Morgan Chase, Credit Suisse and and CFRA Research.

Ford executives call this period a turnaround.

"I'm exhausted and I love it," said Deering, the global chief marketing officer who joined Ford in January from eBay. "There’s a lot of tension in the system. ... People  are uncomfortable. It’s new, with a different level of accountability. Our mission and our vision for the strategy is so crystal clear, you can’t hide. Are there people who are probably uncomfortable with that? Yes." "

The company has grown billions in value over the past year, now exceeding $61 billion.

Endless energy

Farley is visibly prepared for meetings, from product design to product recalls. He wants to hear ideas. He wants to hear about problems. He wants to focus on solutions. Employees say they know they'll be embarrassed if they try to make excuses.

"He's a maniac. He has the energy of 10 people," said a longtime Ford insider who worked under five CEOs.

Farley talks about customers in every meeting. The issue is not whether people just buy Ford products or know about Ford products but how people feel about Ford and its leadership.

Obsession

Employees say Farley is obsessed with the experiences consumers have. He keeps telling employees to think of customers as family. It's one reason why Ford has implemented unique programs for Bronco customers on waiting lists.

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Farley engages with the public frequently on social media. And consumers have been known during the past year to reach out directly to top-tier Ford people on Twitter, including the CEO, to get help directly rather than work through customer service.

Dealer markups on popular vehicles have frustrated shoppers in the past but Ford has, until now, taken a passive approach, employees said. They told consumers to work it out. Now, while Ford cannot tell dealers what to charge, the Ford team can help people find different dealers who price competitively. Under Farley they do, employees said.

"Stuff like 'treating customers like family' and actually helping them, making it explicit, makes it easier to push and do the right thing," said another Ford employee who has worked under four CEOs.

President Joe Biden tours the Ford Rouge EV Center on May 18, 2021, in Dearborn. From left, plant manager Corey Williams,  Biden, Ford Executive Chair Bill Ford and Ford CEO Jim Farley.
President Joe Biden tours the Ford Rouge EV Center on May 18, 2021, in Dearborn. From left, plant manager Corey Williams, Biden, Ford Executive Chair Bill Ford and Ford CEO Jim Farley. Evan Vucci, Associated Press

Farley drove home the idea of personalized customer service, a term often dismissed as meaningless happy speak, when he learned of fires in the battery compartment of the plug-in hybrid Ford Kuga in Europe in late 2020. He had been CEO fewer than 90 days. 

On a crisis management call, the Ford team explained that it planned to send out a letter to alert customers to the safety concern, identify the problem and fix it as quickly as possible. 

Farley interjected that their plan fell short, that it wasn't doing enough to offer support and a feeling of understanding. He told the team to dramatically rethinkstrategy as if their mother or brother had been affected, rather than a nameless customer.

"We presented our plan to Jim who challenged us straight away to change our point of focus from simply fixing the problem," said an employee who was on the call but not authorized to discuss it. "I vividly remember Jim’s challenge to us as follows: ‘If this was your mother or your grandmother, would you treat them in the way you are suggesting?’ "

The team dramatically revised the plan, ensuring that customers had regular communication. Ford joined forums on social media, talking individually to customers and helping them one by one. Employees made videos explaining the problem and how it would be fixed. The company put together "meaningful offers of support" and made sure they had a single point of contact at Ford and assigned a dealer to speed up the process.

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That specific exchange laid the groundwork for all that would follow in 2021, employees said. They heard what he said and executed on this vision.

This is the perspective of an executive trained in marketing. An engineer may say to just build a better vehicle. A marketing guy will understand that a customer expects more, industry observers said.

Farley has the power to "dramatically" change the culture, Oakland University's Giberson said.

"I see personalization and accountability," he said. "Let's just think about Ford. It has been around forever. People have passed the buck, sent a memo. People get a memo and think, 'Do they really give a (expletive)? Ford doesn't care about me.' "

But interacting by phone or social media changes the paradigm and recognizes the needs and demands of consumers in 2021. 

"All of a sudden, Ford is not a behemoth," Giberson said.

Yet Farley's approach will likely inspire some people to leave Ford, Giberson said.

"If he's truly effective, he's changing the culture. And you should see turnover, you should see people saying, 'This is all BS.' Ford is full of people who fit the historical model," Giberson said. "If it's all just window dressing, you won't see much turnover. But one of the reasons he's bringing in people from Silicon Valley and other industries is he's looking for a different value set, attitude, sets of assumptions about the world itself."

'I went deep'

Before Farley was promoted, he, too, had to change his world view.

Ford asked him to reinvent himself in early 2019. 

Farley revealed what had unfolded at Ford during an interview he did with his cousin Tripp Tracy just weeks after starting as CEO. This episode of the "Digging in with Tripp" Apple podcast, which usually focuses on pro hockey, instead focused on Ford and Farley.

"The company asked me, 'Hey Jim, we need you to go in this new business area and really help with automated vehicles and new technology.' Tripp, it was so hard," Farley said on the podcast.

Jim Farley shares personal stories on 'Digging in with Tripp' podcast in 2020
Jim Farley talks with his cousin Tripp Tracy on the 'Digging in with Tripp' podcast in October 2020, just weeks after Farley assumed the Ford CEO role.
Provided by Tripp Tracy, Detroit Free Press

But, Farley said, "I love dealers. I love getting in the design dome and arguing about the design of a vehicle. I love going to the test track and saying, 'That's wrong. That makes too much noise.' I found myself completely out of the world I love. And I had a choice to make,. ... And I went deep. I went to every technology company. I asked them what their ambition in our industry was. I tried to learn how they think. Well, I think that's one of the reasons why I had the opportunity to lead the company. Because our industry is getting disrupted and they need leaders who understand different perspectives."

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The company had divided up its top leadership by assigning Farley and fellow executive Joe Hinrichs to key roles in a move widely viewed as a succession test for the two men. Hinrichs would guide automotive manufacturing and operations globally. Farley would lead automotive 2.0 and a future that includes driverless vehicles and big data. 

"The race is on for who’s going to replace Jim Hackett. It’s clearly down to Hinrichs and Farley. Hinrichs has all the real stuff that matters. He’s in charge of what the company is today," industry observer John McElroy, host of "Autoline After Hours" podcast and webcast, told the Free Press in April 2019.

"Farley has an opportunity to take what he’s in charge of, which is the future. But for all practical purposes right now, it’s vaporware. He’s got to turn it into a real business that makes money," McElroy said.

Hinrichs abruptly resigned his position 10 months later. And Farley was named successor to Jim Hackett in August 2020, assuming the role in October. 

"Ford clearly believes that Jim Farley can best lead the company in an industry where the business model is changing," McElroy said at the time. "Data mining and monetization, online services and over-the-air updates now represent the greatest growth opportunities for automakers — probably more important than new models and features. Farley’s background and expertise makes him perfectly placed to lead Ford into this new future."

Farley is moving faster now than anyone could have predicted, McElroy said this week.. 

"Things are happening with a flurry," he said. "Before, under the previous leadership, there was talk of grandiose visions but no clear path of how they were going to get there. There were no actionable items given to the people in the company on how to achieve it. What Farley has done is create a growth path vision of where the company is going to go and delivering the specifics of how they’re going to get there."

Farley stands in a room with Model T vehicles at the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant in Detroit on Jan. 14, 2021.
Farley stands in a room with Model T vehicles at the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant in Detroit on Jan. 14, 2021. Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press

Farley has made it clear to the world that "it's not business as usual," McElroy said.

He wondered if, like beloved former Ford CEO Alan Mulally — who hired Farley back in the day — anyone recognized Farley on the street or felt a connection.

Well, in January, Farley was running a bit behind schedule for a photo shoot for a company project. He paused to respond to a man in a truck outside the old Ford Piquette Avenue Plant in Detroit who called out to Farley to talk about wheels or tires or hubcaps or something. They went on and on, Farley answering questions and shooting the breeze.

Farley talked until the guy drove off. When asked by a Free Press reporter who the animated happy stranger was, Farley said, "I have no idea."

Ford CEO Jim Farley welcomes veteran George England, 97, at Michigan Central Station in Detroit on Sept. 25, 2021. It was England's first visit back since 1945, when he returned from World War II.
Ford CEO Jim Farley welcomes veteran George England, 97, at Michigan Central Station in Detroit on Sept. 25, 2021. It was England's first visit back since 1945, when he returned from World War II. Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press

The CEO makes a point of Interacting with people outside the company. In late September, he made a surprise visit to Michigan Central Station in Corktown when he heard a World War II veteran was getting a private tour he had requested.Farley told employees on-site that it made him feel good to hear old stories about the train station.

'Dawn of a new era'

Ford, under Farley, is seeing the "Dawn of a new era," Credit Suisse said.

"Farley has Ford on the right track," analyst Dan Levy wrote to investors on May 27. "Many cited concerns on Ford’s ability to transition the business longer term. ... There were calls for deeper restructuring at Ford, and some asked whether Ford would need to deepen its partnership with Volkswagen. Yet in the brief period that Jim Farley has been at the helm at Ford, we and others on (Wall Street) have developed greater confidence in the long-term direction of Ford. "

Paying respect

Despite all the early praise and accolades as CEO, Farley knows he never could have made it to where he is now without help along the way.

After being elevated to his new CEO role, Farley called workers he knew from some 40 years ago during a summer spent at Alma Products Co., an authorized manufacturer for Ford and GM parts that included brake shoes, brake pads, water pumps and transmissions.

Farley credits those people in Alma, who worked for the company owned by Farley's grandfather, with helping him learn the industry at a young age. 

"He told us that story over dinner," said cousin Tracy, who comes home to Grosse Pointe Farms to visit his mother when he's done doing color commentary for Carolina Hurricanes hockey games. "Jimmy makes lifelong friendships. He has an ability to connect with all people — whoever you are. ... It’s because he’s real, and people can feel that. He earns respect. He shows up every day."

Contact Phoebe Wall Howard: 313-618-1034 or phoward@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @phoebesaid. Read more on Ford and sign up for our autos newsletter.

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