Ford fires CEO Fields, in part, for lagging on electric cars

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Mark Fields

Mark Fields

It's all the buzz of the auto industry this morning: Ford has fired its CEO Mark Fields and will replace him with Jim Hackett, former CEO of Michigan furniture maker Steelcase.

Hackett presently oversees the Ford unit working on autonomous vehicles.

The company is expected to make the announcement this morning, according to numerous media reports from sources briefed on the move.

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Articles confirming the expected firing came last night from both The New York Times and business magazine Forbes.

Fields, a 28-year Ford veteran, was tapped to lead Ford in 2014 by Alan Mullaly, who had been brought in from Boeing to turn around the company in 2006.

Mullaly famously did just that, including taking a loan of tens of billions of dollars to fund a wholesale renovation of the company's global product lineup. Fields, the insider "car guy," became product chief.

Mark Fields (left) and Alan Mulally

Mark Fields (left) and Alan Mulally

Mullaly proved to have excellent timing, and Ford's restructuring was underway by the time of the deep recession that pushed competitors GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy.

Ford famously ended up requiring no direct financial assistance (it did receive a $5.9 billion low-interest loan from the Department of Energy), unlike the other two.

But if Mullaly's charge was to save the company, the task for Fields may have been harder still: transform it.

The industry widely acknowledges that the combination of vehicle electrification, autonomy, connectivity, and sharing will wreak big changes that are, so far, poorly understood.

Ford is viewed by those in the media who cover it as a company that talks a great deal about those topics, often at the expense of sharing actual information on actual cars.

2012 Ford Focus Electric

2012 Ford Focus Electric

2013 Ford C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid, Marin County, CA, Nov 2012

2013 Ford C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid, Marin County, CA, Nov 2012

Ford Fusion Energi charging.

Ford Fusion Energi charging.

But despite a flurry of press releases about projects and prototype vehicles and test cars and public demonstrations, it remained unclear how much "there" is there. Electric cars are a perfect case in point.

Ford occupies a middle ground between Fiat Chrysler—whose CEO publicly and repeatedly criticizes them as money-losers—and GM, which launched the 238-mile Chevrolet Bolt EV electric car last December.

The Dearborn maker has sold the Ford Focus Electric since December 2011, but the battery-electric conversion of the compact hatchback is strictly a compliance car to meet California rules requiring sales of a certain number of zero-emission vehicles.

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More than that, Ford's dismissive attitude toward the car and the utter lack of updates until its sixth year telegraphed its disinterest in the sector.

Few makers will launch a new type of car with a strong focus on why consumers will likely not buy it.

And by 2016, the Focus Electric's EPA-rated range of 76 miles was close to the bottom of the segment, lower than all but two electric minicars: the Mitsubishi i-MiEV (62 miles) and the Smart ForTwo Electric Drive (68  miles).

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