DETROIT — Ford’s leaders have watched Mark Fields, a brash Harvard MBA, turn the company’s North American business into a profit machine. Now they are considering him for chief executive.
Fields, 51, was named chief operating officer Thursday, a sign the board favors him for the top job when chief executive Alan Mulally retires. Mulally, 67, plans to stay at least through 2014, a decision that reassured Wall Street.
The announcement puts to rest — for now — the swirl of speculation about Ford’s succession plans. Investors have been anxious to learn who will replace Mulally, the sunny, charismatic leader who united Ford’s fractious management and made the 109-year-old company healthy again. Mulally became chief executive in 2006, when Ford was nearly bankrupt, and has presided over three full years of profits.
Fields will lead day-to-day operations at the carmaker, which sold nearly 5.7 million vehicles in 2011 and generated $136 billion in revenue. All of the company’s business units — with 70 plants and 164,000 employees worldwide — will report to him. Mulally will guide Ford’s long-term strategy and mentor a new management team put in place Thursday.
Jefferies analyst Peter Nesvold said Fields in unique in having led, or participated in, turnarounds in Europe, South America, Asia, and America.
‘‘Fields has grown into a CEO-ready executive,’’ Nesvold said in a note to investors.
Fields has been on the fast track since joining Ford in 1989 as a marketing research analyst. In 2000, he became the youngest chief executive ever at a Japanese company when Ford installed him as head of Mazda, which Ford controlled at the time. There, he oversaw the catchy ‘‘Zoom Zoom’’ ad campaign. He was later head of Ford’s European division and its luxury brands, which struggled with losses despite his tough medicine, including the closing of a historic Jaguar plant in Britain.
After Ford executive chairman Bill Ford named Fields head of the Americas in 2005, he developed the company’s Way Forward turnaround plan, which called for plant closings, layoffs, and new US vehicles — many of them from Europe — to increase sales. But as the plan was being implemented, Ford was sliding further into debt and Fields and other executives were paralyzed by battles over the company’s future.
In 2006, Fields was passed over for chief executive in favor of Mulally, who refused to tolerate infighting and established weekly meetings for the entire management team. Mulally mortgaged all of Ford’s assets for a $23.5 billion loan, then used it to put Fields’s Way Forward plan into place. By 2009, Ford was profitable again, and it has remained so ever since.
The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born Fields is sometimes chided as a phony, with his polished showmanship, deep tan, and wavy mullet that seems to get shorter and more businesslike with each promotion. In 2007, when Ford was hemorrhaging money, the company was embarrassed by news reports that Fields was using the corporate jet to fly from Detroit to his home in Florida on weekends. He gave up the jet and won’t use it when he becomes chief operating officer, the company said.
Supporters say Fields is an excellent strategist. His international experience will be invaluable for Ford’s next large restructuring in Europe, where Ford plans to close three plants by 2014. He’ll also draw on that experience for another key project: Ford’s expansion in Asia.
Ford hasn’t had a chief operating officer since 2006.