Ford's board of directors is meeting this week amid news media reports that it will put a succession plan into motion by promoting a key front-runner to a new high-level position that would be a final audition to replace Alan Mulally as CEO.
The board is preparing to promote Mark Fields to the newly created job of chief operating officer, Bloomberg reported Tuesday, a move that would reinforce Fields' already strong likelihood of becoming CEO when Mulally retires.
Ford does not normally disclose when its board meets. But if a major appointment such as COO becomes official, it must be reported to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, making it a matter of public record.
Fields currently is president of the Americas -- the company's most profitable region -- and although Ford has a bench of executives being groomed for higher positions, Fields is considered the front-runner.
Ford's succession planning has focused on promoting the next top executive from within. It is Mulally's responsibility to present multiple candidates to the board for consideration.
Fields, who has been conspicuously absent from news media events since June, attended an event Monday at the Flat Rock assembly plant. Asked whether he would like to be the next CEO, he declined to comment.
Mulally, 67, has not said when he will retire, but industry watchers expect him to step down around the end of 2013.
Bloomberg cited an unnamed source who said Ford's directors will continue succession planning discussions at its board meeting later this week and could vote to promote Fields, 51, then, or present a plan for a future vote.
"We do not comment on speculation about personnel actions," Ford spokesman Jay Cooney said in a statement. "Ford Motor Co. takes succession planning very seriously, and we have succession plans in place for each of our key leadership positions."
Fields has been the most likely successor for some time.
"It's not a big surprise," said Jesse Toprak, vice president with TrueCar.com, an online auto information company based in Santa Monica, Calif. "Fields is young and energetic and fits the profile of the company."
The Brooklyn, N.Y., native who grew up in Paramus, N.J., went to Ford in 1989 after several years with IBM. He was instrumental in Ford's $23.5-billion restructuring in 2006, which financed the subsequent turnaround without emergency government loans.
In 2011, Ford reported $20 billion in net income, but its stock continues to languish, largely because it is losing money in Europe and spending heavily to increase its foothold in China.
"He knows the long-term strategy, so he won't disrupt what has been put in place, but is also forward-thinking," Toprak said.
Fields was the first American executive to lead Mazda, which he did from 1998 to 2002 when Ford had a large stake in the Japanese automaker. He also led Ford's Premier Automotive Group, the company's underperforming attempt to integrate Lincoln with luxury brands Land Rover, Jaguar, Aston Martin and Volvo that it bought in the 1990s and early 2000s. It has since sold all those brands but Lincoln.
Speculation about Mulally's replacement escalated when he turned 65 and reached full boil this spring when Ford regained an investment-grade credit rating and took possession of collateral pledged six years ago to borrow $23.5 billion.
Mulally came in when Ford's future was just as shaky as that of Chrysler and General Motors. He unified a corporate culture where infighting was legendary and set forth his One Ford vision, winning widespread loyalty.
Aside from Fields, other contenders are the regional chiefs: Stephen Odell in Europe and Joe Hinrichs in Asia Pacific, both of whom likely will have important roles in a post-Mulally Ford.
Odell, 57, is tackling overcapacity and losses in Europe expected to exceed $1 billion this year.
Hinrichs, 45, is pushing aggressive growth in Asia Pacific, and China specifically, where Ford is working to catch up in the world's largest auto market.
Ford has invested in the development of multiple candidates for about 100 top positions in the company, including the CEO, Felicia Fields, group vice president in charge of human resources and corporate services, said earlier this year.
"It's an ingrained process. We do succession planning in all levels of management," she said, including vice presidents, directors and senior managers worldwide. Planning for key positions occurs years in advance, she said.
"Vice president and above, the board pays attention to," said Fields, who is no relation to Mark Fields.
Ford's last chief operating officer was Jim Padilla from 2004 until his retirement July 1, 2006. His duties were assumed by then-Chairman and CEO Bill Ford. A new COO was not appointed.
Mulally, a retired Boeing executive, came in and relieved Bill Ford of his CEO duties in September 2006. Mulally also did not restore the COO position.
"If the COO is appointed from within, it can be a morale booster and sends the message that employees are valued," Toprak said.
A Korn Ferry study shows that it costs about $500,000 to find and hire a top executive from outside the company,
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More Details: Mark Fields
--Current title: Executive vice president and president of the Americas
--Education: Bachelor's degree in economics from Rutgers University, MBA from Harvard University
--Employment: Joined Ford in 1989 after working for IBM. In 1998, Ford put him in charge of Mazda. In 2002, he was promoted to chairman of Premier Automotive Group, which encompassed the Lincoln, Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo brands, all of which Ford has sold except Lincoln.
--Born: Brooklyn, N.Y. Grew up in Paramus, N.J.
--Family: Wife, Jane, and sons Max and Zach
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