- Markets Insider
Wall Street is now calling the shots at the No. 2 US automaker.
OK, if you go by market cap, Ford isn’t No. 2 – it’s No. 3, depending on what Tesla is doing. With Tesla at about $50 billion, there are days when it’s bigger than General Motors. And that’s the problem.
The ouster of CEO Mark Fields and his replacement by Jim Hackett, who had been running Ford’s Smart Mobility initiative, is a signal that the company and the Ford family members who control it want to reverse a stock-price slide of over 30% in the past three years.
Auto sales in the US and Ford’s profits surged during this period, but shares have either languished or slid, as investors have become preoccupied with new industry players – Tesla, Uber, Google, Apple – and worried that a seven-year sales expansion is ending.
In response to the news of the CEO replacement, Ford shares hardly moved in trading on Monday. They were up slightly, just over 1.5%, to $11.05, after a Friday close at below $11.
According to Ford’s chairman, Bill Ford, he and Fields decided late last week, after Ford’s annual shareholder meeting, that it was time for Fields to go, and Hackett, a former Steelcase CEO, got the nod.
Hackett’s close relationship with Bill Ford and their shared enthusiasm for a futuristic view of Ford’s business suggests the chairman and new CEO will run Ford’s efforts to remain relevant while several executives who worked for Fields will handle the traditional car business.
“If I have any kind of impact in this business, you will not feel the competition on two people,” Hackett said during a press conference on Monday.
Hackett said he saw his role as facilitating greater teamwork and faster decision-making at Ford.
Optics that are impossible to get wrong
The optics of this leadership change by the Ford board are impossible to misinterpret. There were few indications that Fields was on the chopping block, particularly after Ford saw a record profit in 2015 of nearly $11 billion. The money has continued to roll in, but the stock price has dipped.
That disconnect can’t be blamed on Ford not matching Tesla’s business, which consists of selling all-electric vehicles for about $100,000 apiece. The market for EVs is tiny, and Ford sells as many vehicles in a month as Tesla sells in a year.
Nor can the falling stock price be attributed to pressure from Silicon Valley. Uber has been in crisis mode for over a month, after a series of PR fiascos, and Google and Apple are clearly aiming to dominate in-vehicle technology systems and the big data gathered by them rather than take on Ford head-to-head.
Fields is out because he was the otherwise highly successful leader of a hugely profitable company whose stock price fell over 30% after he took over. He knew the risks.
That said, he probably didn’t think Tesla’s fantastic valuation and Wall Street’s disdain for here-and-now profits would cost him his job.