(CNN Business)It’s hard to imagine two people more different from one another than Jim Hackett, the departing CEO of Ford, and Jim Farley, his incoming replacement.
Farley has a passion for fast, powerful cars from the company’s history, like the Ford GT40 race car and the Shelby Cobra, both of which he has owned over the years and clearly loved driving. He has worked in leadership roles at Ford () for more than a decade and he was at Toyota for 17 years before that, where he headed the company’s Lexus brand in the US.
Hackett, on the other hand, previously worked at the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based office furniture company Steelcase, as well as a turn as the athletic director at the University of Michigan, and has a passion for management theory. He rarely answers a question without referencing an Ivy League professor he has recently spoken with, or a book on social trends he has read. He peppers his conversations with management consultant jargon that he often later has to explain.
When Hackett was brought in to lead Ford in 2017, Chairman Bill Ford introduced him as someone who would bring a much needed change of perspective, who had good relations with the sort of Silicon Valley leaders that Ford hoped to emulate. As with other “legacy” car companies, both then and now, Ford’s stock seemed stuck in neutral while the market value of Tesla (), a company with a fraction of Ford’s revenue, roared ahead.
Hackett made some bold moves, such as entirely dropping sedans and hatchbacks from Ford’s lineup, and committing to selling just SUVs and the sporty Mustang coupe. Ford also entered into a partnership with Volkswagen that has the two companies teaming up on some electric models and on autonomous vehicle technology, as well. Ford also invested in electric truck maker Rivian and partnered with with Indian automaker Mahindra for its business there.
Ford stepped up its own development of electric vehicles, too, with a strategy focused on models specifically designed to break through consumer stereotypes about EVs. Upcoming models like the Ford Mustang Mach-E and an electric F-150 pickup truck have been designed to show Ford’s customers that electric vehicles can be fun to drive, and that they can be powerful and work hard as well.
Those upcoming products, along with the recently unveiled Bronco off-road SUV models, have generated a lot of excitement among car buyers. But not so much among investors, though. Ford’s overall market value remains a fraction of Tesla’s.
And Hackett himself never seemed to generate that same excitement among Ford’s employees. After Alan Mulally took over in 2006, Ford employees would go out of their way to tell me how enthusiastic they were for their new leader. He inspired them. Like Hackett, Mulally was an outsider having led Boeing’s commercial airplane business. While he never claimed to know much about cars, those who worked for him didn’t seem to hold his lack of automotive bona fides against him.
Mulally had a rare ability to make his own enthusiasm infectious, said Edmunds.com industry analyst Jessica Caldwell. But Hackett lacked that innate charisma, she said, and his highly theoretical way of speaking could be confusing.
“It all sounded great and the metaphors were beautiful,” said Caldwell, who has heard Hackett speak a number of times. “But it wasn’t really clear what was supposed to happen.”
Now the keys to the 117-year-old Ford Motor Company are being handed to someone with a passion for automobiles, both past and present.
We should be careful not to see Farley as just an old-fashioned car buff, though, said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst at Autotrader.
“I’ve known Farley since his days at Scion,” she said, referring to Toyota’s now-defunct youth-oriented brand, which he helped launch in 2002, “and I think he’s been a visionary.”
That is going to prove helpful given how rapidly the automotive world is changing. Electrification here thanks to regulatory restrictions and changing consumer tastes. The ways in which people are buying and using cars are changing, too. Fully autonomous cars are arriving more slowly than many once thought but, in the meantime, technology is arriving to at least take over our less demanding day-to-day driving chores.
It’s clear that Farley has been groomed for this role. While the timing of Tuesday’s announcement may have been surprising, no one should have been surprised that Farley was taking the job. Before being named Chief Operating Officer at Ford earlier this year, Farley had been head of Ford’s new business, technology and strategy group. It was a role that was seemingly created to test and develop Farley’s ability to lead and think outside of the typical automotive product realm.
Now it’s time to see whether Farley’s passion can help lead the company into a world where the rumble of a big Ford V8 just doesn’t excite customers the way it used to, but over-the-air software updates in a neck-snappingly quick self-driving electric Mustang SUV just might.