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Alan Mulally's Last Act at Ford: Change the World Again

Stocks in this article: BA F

DETROIT ( TheStreet) -- Some people coast easily into retirement, but it doesn't appear that is the course Alan Mulally has selected.

Rather, for his final act as CEO of Ford (F), Mulally took on a major job: reducing the weight of America's best-selling vehicle, and perhaps eventually of all U.S. vehicles, by substituting aluminum for steel. It is not a task for which he is unprepared. At Boeing (BA), where he spent 37 years, Mulally presided over the start of a similar transformation when he ushered in the 787 Dreamliner.

Mulally departed Boeing, where he was passed over for the CEO job, before implementation of the production plan was completed. By many measures, the implementation was disastrous, resulting in billions of dollars in cost overruns and a three-year delay in delivery of the first aircraft.

I can imagine asking Mulally, in an interview, if he would take particular pleasure in having Ford get the implementation right after Boeing got it wrong. He would just stare at me. He might smile. He would never answer.

"Alan would have been an amazing Boeing CEO," said aviation consultant Richard Aboulafia of Virginia-based Teal Group. "He would have loved doing that job. But (Ford) involves a similar skill set."

Mulally was deeply involved in the decision to make the 787 from composite materials. "He's quite mindful of the importance of saving weight with better materials," Aboulafia said. "He is someone who has, in his DNA, the ability to make the strategic decisions involving strength, weight and cost."

Trained as an engineer, Mulally was program manager for the Boeing 777, "one of great American industrial success stories of the past century," before he took on the 787, Aboulafia said. As plans for the 787 took shape, Mulally faced "the opposition of people who didn't want to spend the cash," the McDonnellDouglas people who came to dominate Boeing following the 1997 merger.

"My take was that he could either launch a program that was heavily outsourced and deeply flawed, where the responsibility for design devolved onto the partners, or he could not launch at all," Aboulafia said. "He was forced to do outsourcing because the alternative was to do nothing. He had a gun to his head."

It is different at Ford, where the chairman and the board of directors back Mulally, who is surrounded by a management team he assembled. It is "probably the strongest team I've ever been associated with in all my 43 years," Mulally said at an investor conference on Wednesday, "The transparency, the honesty -- it's changed all of our lives. Everyone has felt the value of that. It has served Ford well."

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