The Big Transition Looming at Ford

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Despite some breathless headlines, shares of Ford (NYS: F) didn't fall significantly after the automaker announced the departure of two senior executives last Thursday. (The stock did fall on Friday, but then so did most of the market.)

At first glance, some Ford shareholders might have been inclined to agree with the headline-writers --  the departures of CFO Lewis Booth and Global Product Development chief Derrick Kuzak, both key drivers of Ford's remarkable renaissance, certainly look like major losses for the Blue Oval.

But in truth, while though both men will be missed, the details of their departures actually say some very good things about the state of Ford right now.

Amid instability, stability
Make no mistake: These two men have been very important to Ford in recent years. Booth -- about whom Executive Chairman Bill Ford once said "he literally knows how the entire Ford world works more than any executive we have in the company" -- drove a conservative, disciplined approach to Ford's finances that brought the company from a precariously over-leveraged state to its current financial good health. And Kuzak turned the "One Ford" product plan -- a great idea, but a daunting one when it was first proposed -- into a unified global lineup of products good enough to compete with the best from Toyota (NYS: TM) and Honda (NYS: HMC) .

Losing these guys hurts, although at least Ford is losing them to retirement, not to rivals. But what was clear when Ford announced that they would be departing is that the company has been preparing for this moment for awhile. Controller Bob Shanks and V.P. of Engineering Raj Nair, the executives named to succeed Booth and Kuzak, respectively, are seasoned, high-profile veterans who have played key roles in the turnaround.

That's important.

In the old days, executive turnover at Ford and General Motors (NYS: GM) often meant lurching shifts in strategy. New-vehicle programs would be cancelled or re-thought, models repositioned, and priorities shifted -- all time-consuming distractions, and all expensive. That's not going to happen this time: Ford's on a very specific, very clear course, and Shanks and Nair should be able to step right in and keep things going smoothly.

If these transitions play out in the low-drama way that I expect, that will be a good thing -- because the next big executive transition at Ford is likely to be a lot more nerve-wracking for shareholders.

He's gotta leave someday, folks
CEO Alan Mulally joked on Thursday that he had "read the news release very carefully" to make sure his name wasn't in it, but the question of his succession is the one that was on everyone's mind when the news first hit.

Mulally, of course, is nothing less than the public face of Ford's revival -- the man who set the tone, focused the team, and made it happen. But he's 66 now, which means that it isn't a question of if he'll retire from Ford, but when. While he denied speculation that he would seek to retire by the end of next year, he did say, "Our plan at Ford is to have a very strong succession plan for every position, including my own."

So who will get the job? Speculation on Mulally's possible successor has long focused on three names: Mark Fields, who leads Ford's efforts in North and South America; Joe Hinrichs, who heads Ford's Asian and African operations; and Booth, who now appears to have stepped out of the running. (In fact, there has been speculation that Booth's departure was timed by Ford's board to give the company -- and investors -- some time to adjust before Mulally left.)

Fields is widely thought to be the leading candidate, and at age 51 he should have plenty of time to put his stamp on Ford. What will that stamp look like? We'll probably find out -- but, hopefully, not for a little while longer.

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At the time this article was published Fool contributorJohn Rosevearowns shares of Ford and General Motors. You can follow his auto-related musings on Twitter, where he goes by@jrosevear. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Ford and General Motors, as well as creating a synthetic long position in Ford. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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