America Needs a Turnaround Leader Like Alan Mulally | Don Brunell

Later this year, Alan Mulally will leave Ford Motor Company. On July 1, he turns the reins over to 53-year old Mark Fields, closing a storied career at Ford and Boeing.

Later this year, Alan Mulally will leave Ford Motor Company.  On July 1, he turns the reins over to 53-year old Mark Fields, closing a storied career at Ford and Boeing.

While he hasn’t divulged his plans, hopefully he will bring his talents to government.  Mulally inspires people with his confidence, humility and charisma. His turnaround of Ford has been spectacular.

Yes, government is different than the private sector, but anyone who can bring together people with diverse interests and varied backgrounds during a crisis has the ability to help our country.

We need to rebuild our national confidence and provide a solid road to recovery that puts people back to work.  People, especially young people, are losing hope. In April, the number of people under 25 in the workforce declined by 484,000.

Columnist George Will wrote:  “Unsurprisingly, almost one in three persons 18 to 34 are living with their parents, including 25 percent who have jobs.”  The Pew Research Center reports that Americans 25 to 32 — “millennials” — constitute the first group since World War II with higher unemployment or a greater portion living in poverty than their parents at this age.

When Mulally came to Ford in 2006, the company was projected to lose $17 billion dollars. Facing sliding profits and dwindling market share, Ford needed someone to inspire its managers, shareholders, workers and customers.  Simply, there was a need for bold action.

Mulally mortgaged the company, borrowing $23.6 billion.  It was “the largest home improvement loan” in history.  By 2012, the mortgage was repaid and, unlike GM and Chrysler, Ford took no government bailout.  Compare that to our mounting $17.534 trillion national debt with interest accruing at $16,115 per second.  There is no national plan to stem the borrowing, let alone pay off our debt.

Ford sold off several struggling brands and closed plants around the world, reducing the company’s workforce by 100,000 people. The only consolation to the job losses is there are 181,000 people still working at Ford.

In 2007 he struck a grand bargain with UAW President Ron Gettelfinger that traded new product commitments from Ford for competitive labor contracts. It was a high-stakes play that paid off last year when healthy profits allowed Ford to pay all the hourly factory workers a record profit-sharing bonus of about $8,800 each.

Prior to joining Ford, Mulally was president and chief executive officer of Boeing Commercial Airplanes in Seattle.  While his most impressive engineering achievement at Boeing was the launching the first commercial airlines to feature a fully digitized dashboard, it was his business and civic leadership that drew attention in the Puget Sound area.

In 2001, Gov. Gary Locke tapped Mulally as one of the five leaders of the Competitiveness Council to improve Washington State’s struggling business climate.

Locke realized that to spur economic development Washington needed to reform the way it regulated and taxed businesses.  One of Council’s hallmark accomplishments was restructuring Washington’s unemployment system.  Those 2003 reforms made our state one of the few that did not have to borrow federal money to pay jobless benefits during the Great Recession.

Mulally’s success isn’t about the executives at the top, it’s about figuring out how to get every employee to understand the vision of the company, buy into the plan, and feel supported in their jobs.

Previously, if Ford employees stopped production, managers jumped down their throats.  Mulally says now managers ask, “What can we do to help you out?”

“If people aren’t optimistic, they’re not going to make the sacrifices and do the work required to turn things around,” Mulally concludes.

That’s what our nation needs:  Better management, inspiring leadership and a good jolt of optimism.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist.  He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at

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