Ford workers hope for Kansan’s magic touch

CEO visits area to promote vehicles, boost morale

? Now in the driver’s seat of an iconic American automaker, Alan Mulally traveled from the company’s Michigan headquarters to its sprawling Kansas City Assembly Plant to spread a message Friday of optimism, hope and realistic expectations.

That he grew up a few miles west on Interstate 70, in Lawrence, just made the trip all that more special.

“It’s nice to be home,” Mulally said.

Four months after taking over as Ford’s president and chief executive officer, Mulally had climbed into a new Ford Escape and enjoyed a smooth ride from the airport to the company’s 4.7 million-square-foot plant for a formal introduction of two of its latest products: 2008 versions of the Escape and Mercury Mariner.

The trip came a day after Ford, the company that invented the assembly line and effectively brought automobiles to the masses, reported that it had lost $12.7 billion in 2006, enough for nearly $2,000 on every company vehicle sold last year.

But Mulally – the upbeat graduate of Lawrence High School and Kansas University – spent Friday morning smiling and shaking hands, listening intently as workers shared stories of cost-savings initiatives and promising to do whatever it takes to make the company successful.

“You’re making your future,” he said often, greeting workers during a tour of the plant.

Mulally has seen such conditions before.

He spent 37 years at Boeing Commercial Airplanes and became the operation’s chief executive just weeks before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the disaster that left airplane orders plummeting and prompted rounds of job cuts and production changes.

Mulally’s stewardship of Boeing’s restructuring – the company ended 2006 with orders for a record 1,044 new planes, up from 281 in 2003 – featured a focus on more fuel-efficient planes than those offered by chief rival Airbus, and it’s a push looked upon by many at Ford as a reason for hope.

If Mulally can lift Boeing to unprecedented heights, they figure, he can drive the world’s second-largest automaker back on the road to profitability.

Stephen Butler, a member of the Ford board that hired Mulally, said that the longtime Boeing executive was the right man at the right time.

“He’s terrific,” said Butler, retired chairman and chief executive officer of KPMG LLP, who attended Friday’s event. “He’s a leader. He’s a team builder. He’s going to hold people accountable. He has prior experience in this sort of an effort, too.

“He knows manufacturing. He knows engineering, product development – all the key things that you need to know to turn this business around. (For him), this is not new.”

None other than Henry Ford himself learned just how new the approach is.

During the tour, Mulally came across the 29-year plant employee working in the truck body shop and couldn’t help but give him an impromptu hug.

“I’ve been looking for you!” Mulally exclaimed.

Although Ford has no relation to the company’s founder with whom he shares a name, the autoworker said that it was a good sign that the company’s CEO was touring the plant, offering enthusiastic greetings and hearing success stories about cost-cutting efforts, employee initiatives and plant efficiencies.

Ford never had seen a guy “that high up” sharing the floor with the plant’s 5,000 workers.

“It’s extraordinary,” Ford said. “He did it at Boeing. I sure hope he’s able to turn this company around and get us on the right track.”

He isn’t the only one. Asked about the prospects for translating his successes at Boeing to addressing challenges at Ford, a confident Mulally cited statistics about “quality growth” and the need for efficient production of quality products that meet the demands of the marketplace.

Mulally smiled yet again, just as he had while huddling with union leaders, posing for photos with production workers or even accepting a stuffed Missouri Tiger from a team of guys from the truck-and-trim section.

“It’s the same story,” he said.