Why Alan Mulally Will Stay at Ford

DETROIT ( TheStreet) -- The reporting on the possible departure of Ford ( F) CEO Alan Mulally for Microsoft ( MSFT) fascinates me because it is so clearly being reported from two different sides.

The Ford side has seemed nearly certain that Mulally will stay, even if stories on Friday in The Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News opened the door a bit. "Those who know Mulally say there are many reasons why the move makes sense for a man who is already credited with saving two iconic American companies," the News reported, while the Free Press talked about the financial implications of Mulally 's potential departure.

However, Ford is denying Mulally will leave, as it has consistently. Three weeks ago, the last time Mulally-to-Microsoft chatter crested, Ford spokesman Jay Cooney said: "There is no change from what we announced in November -- Alan Mulally plans to continue to serve as Ford's president and CEO through at least 2014." Cooney told me the same thing on Saturday. Mulally has consistently denied that he will leave. Also on Friday, The Detroit News talked with Ford President Mark Fields and then reported that "the apparent successor to Mulally said Friday that there are no immediate plans for him to take over in Dearborn."

I view the denials as firm. The auto industry is covered by a lot of good reporters, all of them in Detroit, and I don't think they miss much.

Yet a good reporter on the tech side sees it differently. Kara Swisher, a writer for AllThings D, a Web site that covers technology, stirred all this up on Thursday, writing that Mulally "has vaulted to the forefront of the candidates to become the new CEO of Microsoft." She noted: "Sources said Mulally has not entered formal contract negotiations with Microsoft, but that discussions with him about the job have been serious."

It seems clear from the story that people at Microsoft believe Mulally is coming there. Microsoft people, I assume, are much like the rest of us: They hear what they want to hear. They are, however, billions of dollars wealthier than the rest of us, so I imagine they do not generally expect that someone might conceivably tell them no. When you read that Mulally still has his house in Seattle and has friendships with Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, you can only imagine the level of the temptation he faces. He fixed Boeing ( BA), he fixed Ford, and now he can fix something else and not have to commute so far.

It is possible to view the battle for Mulally as a war between industrial America and technological America. For several generations of Americans, Ford is among a handful of our greatest companies. But for a more recent generation it is far eclipsed by Microsoft. Mulally has been able to straddle the two worlds, just as Boeing has, but he is not a tech person. He is a hero of industrial America.

What Microsoft sees, of course, is Mulally's leadership skills, which start with his personality. Mulally has one of the great personalities-- expansive, aware, welcoming, all accompanied by a sense of humor. In thousands of interviews, I have rarely met anyone like him. If you interview him, he spends the first five minutes interviewing you.

I am reminded of a description of Donald Trump, another great personality, whether you love him or hate him. For a 2011 story about the Trump Shuttle, I talked with Randy Smith, once Trump Shuttle director of sales, who said of Trump: "He had ideas, he would poke around asking questions, and he exhibited one of the things I love when I am hiring and promoting people: He has the curiosity gene." So does Mulally.

For a 2012 story on Mulally's leadership qualities, I interviewed Steve Parks, lead aerodynamics engineer for the Ford Fusion, who recalled a 2011 incident in the Dearborn, Mich., design studio when Mulally entered with a group to have his picture taken.

"I was working in my cubicle and I wanted to see what he looked like in person, so I looked at him, and he looked at me, and he took a right turn and walked over and said 'Hi, I'm Alan Mulally,'" Parks said. "I said, 'I know. I'm Steve Parks. I'm working on aerodynamics for the Fusion.' He said 'aerodynamics, I love aerodynamics,' and he gave me a handshake and a hug. He was involved in aerodynamics at Boeing, and he started firing off questions, and we were talking about incorporating concepts from Boeing." The two men talked for 20 minutes.

"I have met many people," Parks said. "You can warm up to him and you can tell he is interested in the technologies and the people. He is a genuinely warm person."

Another thing I know about Mulally comes from reading American Icon, his story as told by Bryce Hoffman, a Detroit News reporter. Among the many insights in the book is that Mulally has trouble making up his mind about changing jobs.

According to the book, when Ford tried to hire Mulally in 2006, the courtship was lengthy and agonizing. Finally, on Aug. 25, Mulally turned Bill Ford down. The next day, he had doubts and he called Bill Ford and said, "It's not over." So Bill Ford sent an emissary, Joe Laymon, Ford's human resources director, to Seattle. At first Mulally refused to see Laymon. Then they met. The next day Mulally met with Boeing executives and apparently was not pleased. Then he met again with Layman. Then he flew to Chicago to meet with Boeing CEO Jim McNerney. After the meeting he went to Midway Airport, where Layman, who had followed him to Chicago, was waiting. There Mulally signed a Ford contract.

You can see that convincing Mulally to go to work for you is not all that easy. In fact, only two companies have ever done it and one, Boeing, got him straight out of college.

One more thing I know from talking to Mulally: He falls in love. He loved Boeing and now he loves Ford. His passion, like his personality, is bigger than most people's.

During a 2012 interview in his office in Dearborn, Mulally pulled out an original copy of the Jan. 24, 1925, edition of the Saturday Evening Post, expressed his delight in having obtained it, and opened it to a two-page Ford ad/Henry Ford manifesto titled "Opening the Highways to all Mankind." (A blown-up version was on the office wall).

"This is inspirational," Mulally said. "Here's Henry, he's wildly successful, when only the wealthy have vehicles, and he has a compelling vision." Mulally begins to read aloud from the magazine: "Back of all the activities of the Ford Motor Company is this universal idea -- a whole-hearted belief that riding on the people's highway should be within easy reach of all the people." In that moment, Mulally, with Ford insignias engraved on the cuffs of his sleeves, embodies a crusading idealism as he seems to re-channel the spirit of the company's founder.

As he reaches the final paragraph, Mulally declares, "Here's what makes me cry in the morning," before he continues to read aloud: "The Ford Motor Company views its station today less with pride in great achievement than with the sincere and sober realization of new and larger opportunities for service to all mankind."

Honestly, does that sound like a guy who is going to leave Ford?

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Ted Reed

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