It's early, but the day may come when Alan Mullaly's work at

Ford

(F) - Get Report

will rank as one of the great corporate turnarounds by an outsider.

Mullaly arrived at Ford in 2006 after spending 37 years at

Boeing

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, where he presided over development of the 777 but didn't quite reach the top of the corporate ladder.

While both companies are major manufacturers with huge supplier networks and union workforces, they also have major differences. Ford uses a dealer network to sell dozens of vehicle models to millions of consumers; Boeing sells a handful of models to a few hundred airlines.

"There aren't a lot of 747 dealers out there," says Rebecca Lindland, director of autos at HIS Global Insight.

Industry analyst James Harbour says aircraft manufacturing experience led Mullaly to conclude that Ford would work better with common platforms and components, rather than different sources for every single item. "He comes to Ford and he looks at the door handles, and he says, 'Oh My God, I've got 17 different sets of door handles," Harbour says. Finding that unworkable, Mullaly developed the One Ford concept, where platforms and components are shared worldwide.

Another key to Mullaly's success was a decision, shortly after his arrival, to borrow $23.6 billion in 2006, enabling Ford to avoid seeking a government bailout when the financial storm hit.

To date, perhaps the most compelling example of an outsider who successfully transformed a company is Lou Gerstner, who moved from

RJR Nabisco

to

IBM

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in 1993, says Hugh O'Neil, professor at the University of North CarolinaKenan-Flagler Business School.

"IBM had lost momentum," O'Neil says. "Gerstner switched it from a hardware-based company to a services-based company, because coming from the consumer side he had the filter of understanding the consumer. For most people, at IBM the filter was technology: They would look at what is the most elegant and precise technology. But Gerstner knew the customer wants a technology that works cheap and fast, not necessarily the most elegant. What he did, simply put, is to force the technologists to encounter the vision of the customer."

At the same time, Gerstner, like Mullaly at Ford, "demonstrated he had respect for IBM as a historic company with a long history of doing good and important things," O'Neil says.

Bill Swelbar, a management consultant and research engineer who works in the Center for Air Transportation at MIT, says Mullaly " had a vision of the supply chain and how that interacted with the final product, and what he learned at Boeing offered him a tremendous amount of insight at Ford.

"He was also blessed to get there before the storm, and smart enough to deal with the fundamental finance issues when he did," Swelbar says.In trading Thursday, Ford shares closed up 2 cents at $5.65, while shares in

General Motors

(GMGMQ)

closed up 7 cents at $1.18.