There are a lot of parallels between Ford Motor Co.'s 2006 decision to bring in Alan Mulally as CEO and this week's abrupt replacement of Mark Fields with Jim Hackett.
Both times, Ford was struggling to find its identity, falling behind competitors and in need of a leader who can make big changes quickly.
Mulally, who had spent his career in the airplane business and knew little about cars, turned out to be a masterful hire. On the surface, Jim Hackett, who modernized the office furniture maker Steelcase Inc. over two decades as CEO, looks to be from a similar mold as Mulally.
In each case, the initial reaction from many dealers and others in the industry was the same: "Who?"
While Hackett is certainly no grizzled automotive veteran, it's an oversimplification to label him an outsider just like Mulally. Running Ford is a bigger job than Steelcase, for sure, but he's not starting from square one.
Hackett isn't suddenly parachuting into Detroit, seemingly out of nowhere, the way Mulally did. He's an Ohio native and University of Michigan alumnus who has spent almost his entire life within two or three hours of Ford's headquarters. And Steelcase, started just nine years after Ford, is a prominent local business whose founding family is still heavily involved, just like the situation he's stepping into now.
He'll be the first Ford CEO to actually live full-time in Michigan since Bill Ford stepped aside 11 years ago. Mulally flew home to his wife in Seattle most weekends, and Fields constantly went back and forth to his family's home in Florida. (Ford got blowback in 2006, when a Detroit TV station revealed that the automaker was paying for Fields' weekly private jet commute at the same time it was cutting thousands of jobs.)
For Ford employees, it has to be hard to feel like the CEO is fully onboard with the team when he's always got one foot in Dearborn and one foot across the country. Mulally's motivational abilities and folksy personality overcame that divide to successfully capture "the hearts and minds of our employees," as Bill Ford said Monday. But Fields, a Harvard MBA from New Jersey, had more trouble relating to and inspiring the Ford rank and file.
Hackett is also much more familiar to many employees than Mulally. Not only has he been around the company since 2013, first as a board member and then as the head of the mobility subsidiary Fields created last year, he also is universally revered by University of Michigan football fans for a brief run as the school's interim athletic director.
In 16 months in Ann Arbor, Hackett gained the kind of godlike reputation among the Wolverine faithful that Mulally had after eight years at Ford. His crowning achievement was hiring Jim Harbaugh as Michigan's head football coach, a task that few believed he could pull off.
He also mended tattered relations with alumni, fans and students -- averting a potentially disastrous falloff in ticket revenue in the process -- resurrected a gridiron rivalry with Notre Dame and signed a groundbreaking apparel contract with Nike. On blogs and message boards, Michigan fans have, only half-jokingly, urged the university to build a statue of Hackett on campus in appreciation.
Among the 100,000-plus people who fill Michigan Stadium on fall Saturdays are plenty of Ford engineers, assembly workers and midlevel managers -- all of whom knew exactly who Hackett was when he stepped onto the stage at Ford's headquarters Monday morning.
Now they all hope he can have the same positive impact on their cherished Blue Oval as he did on their beloved Maize and Blue.