In Business Back on the Road

Listen to Back on the Road (30/12/2010)

Alan Mulally is making a big name for himself in an industry he is a stranger to, or was until recently. I first heard from him six years ago when he was a big boss at Boeing describing the company's new 787 plane, the so-called Dreamliner.

He was pitching the idea of fast but subsonic travel in a plane designed to deploy new materials such as carbon fibre to fly passengers point to point across the world.

This was a substantial and expensive challenge to what Boeing's great rival Airbus was planning: the new superjumbo A380, shifting big numbers of passengers to the world's biggest airport hubs, the only ones equipped to deal with the big new planes.

Substantially different ideas about the future of flying; then both of the planes hit big trouble in development which has caused long delays in delivery to the many airliners who have ordered one or other or both the aircraft.

Alan Mulally spent 37 years at Boeing. But shortly after I heard from him in 2004, he was headhunted to tackle a great big non–aviation industry problem: in Detroit the Ford Motor Company was in deep deep trouble, and Alan Mulally was hired by the chairman Bill Ford as chief executive officer to save an American icon from extinction.


Ford was haemorrhaging cash in its operations all over the world. It was a crisis, but with hindsight a lucky one. Ford was in such trouble in 2006 that it had to go to the banks to raise loans totalling $23 billion.

Which meant that it had its future plans in place when the credit crunch recession began to bite hard two years later.

Ford's great rivals Chrysler and General Motors were forced into bankruptcy; while at Ford Alan Mulally was already able to start tackling the deep and longstanding problems of the auto industry, debt-burdened but not bankrupt.

It has been an energetic four years. Mr Mulally has sold off Ford subsidiaries such as Jaguar, Volvo and Land Rover, to focus management attention on the core Ford brand names.

He has tried to break down the huge baronies and fiefdoms that dominate the car industry.

He drives Ford with a chartroom of more than 200 ever changing cards pinned on the wall, reporting the key data. He has instituted a traffic light system each card is coloured to flag up problems.

It took a culture change to get leading mangers to admit that their area of responsibility had problems, even when the company was leaking money like a sieve. In the face of an already deeply ingrained meetings culture at Ford he instituted a new one: a weekly Thursday morning meeting when from all over the world a wide range of Ford top executives report in and share the latest news. "I wake up at 4am on Thursdays excited about it", he told me.

This is straightforward stuff, but straightforward stuff is difficult to do in a business as suffused with it sown glory as the car industry has been for decades.

Alan Mulally has boiled down his approach to the rejuvenation of Ford to a laminated business card; he pulled a rather battered one out of his pocket and signed it for me:

Alan Mulally's 'One  Ford' sticker

The message is One Ford; a singlemindedness that the company and the industry has talked about for a long time, but never managed to achieve.

But Ford was facing a crisis when Alan Mulally took on the top job, and a crisis is a wonderful opportunity to get change done at a pace impossible in normal times. He says he has even got the autoworkers' union on side.

In the face of vast economic uncertainty in America, global competition and the recent emergence of China as the world's biggest car marketplace, Ford still has a long way to go before the debts are repaid and the business is out of the woods. Some observers express surprise that Mr Mulally has apparently achieved so much as a car industry outsider.

But is that really so surprising? For decades the car makers in Detroit behaved as if nobody but them knew what car buyers wanted. Meanwhile the Japanese and then other overseas manufacturers were creeping closer to the heartland of the US auto industry, even as Detroit did not take the competition seriously.

Being a Detroit outsider gave Mr Mulally a sporting chance of rescuing an American idol. At least for the time being.

Listen to Back on the Road (30/12/2010)

Previous Programmes

Watch Your Language - Peter Day joins a group of enthusiasts determined to improve the language of business.

Keep it Local - As pubs struggle to survive, Peter Day travels through villages in Yorkshire and Cumbria to talk to local activists.

Space - Peter Day asks what happens next on the USA's journey into space.

German Pencils - Peter Day asks Faber-Castell and Staedtler how they both stay sharp ...

Building BRICS - Peter Day finds out about the BRICS - Brazil, Russia, Indonesia and China

Over A Barrel - Peter Day contemplates the turmoil in the Middle East and fears it will affect the price of oil

Reconstructing Capitalism - Peter Day hears all about the challenges to the way capitalism works.

All at Sea - Peter Day hears all about sea transport.

China Dispossessed - Peter Day hears about some of the problems caused by China's rush for prosperity.

Back on the Road - Alan Mulally tells Peter Day how he changed the way Ford works and how it is now back in the business of selling cars.

Asia Bling! - Peter Day ponders how the rise of the Asian comsumer will change business.

Euro on the Rocks - Peter Day asks what is the future for the Euro?

Bitter Pills - Peter Day looks at changing face of drug development.

Operation Robot - would you allow a robot to operate on you? Peter Day looks at robot-assisted surgery.

Growing Pains - Peter Day asks, what is the main component of growth?

After the Crunch - Government funding and regional development: the view from Newcastle.

Chips off the Old Block - Computing in the UK, past, present and future.

Hidden Depths - Graham Hawkes, DeepFlight and exploring the oceans.

Sociability - How social technology makes new business models possible.

Are CEOs Up to the Job? - Two thirds aren't according to Xinfu's Steve Tappin. Peter Day investigates.

In at the Start - Saeed Amidi and Silicon Valley

Power Play - Is the 'smart grid' the start of something big?

Now Wash Your Hands Please - How a simple idea can transform lives in the developing world

Coming Soon - What can the experience of previous financial crises tell us about the current one?

Ticking Over - Can the Isle of Man rejuvenate the business of watchmaking?

Not Just Silicon - what can Silicon Valley teach us about innovation?

Press under Pressure - what lies ahead for the world of newspaper publishing?

Remembering CK Prahalad - in a world of change and multiple opportunities, how does a company keep up?

Rwanda Rising - building a clean safe state where business can flourish.

Life Cycles - building businesses around the idea of new kinds of bikes.

Who Sets Our Standards - the business and social benefits of standardisation.

Ready to wear - the ethical issues of the international clothing industry.

Doing It Wrong - what's wrong with the way business works?

New Age - the business of aging.

Project Alcatraz - rehabilitating offenders in Venezuela.

Selling Salvation - Peter Drucker and the Salvation Army.

Let Me Entertain You - office parties and away days.

Brazil's Sugar Rush - Brazil.

Small Wonder - microfinance.

Unlimited Company - organizational models.

Credit Crunch - cash and credit.

Student Startups - student entrepreneurs.

Media Mayhem - changes in the newspaper industry.

Squeaky Clean - branding.

Battery Power - Bolivia.

Women's Work - women in the city.

Hell For Leather - John Timpson and Timpson's Shoes.

Learning Curve - organisational culture.

Let's Start a Bank - banking.

Goodbye to Intel - Craig Barrett and Intel.

Location Location - So?

Iceland feels the Heat - the credit crunch in Iceland.

The Cisco Kid - Mike Lynch and John Chambers.

Grand Design - business schools.

Power Drive - the car industry.

All New - innovation.

Europe on the edge - What is this thing called "Europe"?

For more programmes visit the In Business programme archive.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.