Ford can't afford to celebrate just yet

Ford can't afford to celebrate just yet
You know how far Ford Motor Co. has to go when it loses less money in the first quarter and there's still an itch around town to start chilling the champagne.
Understandable, but now isn't the time. Give folks leadership with purpose, goals and a plan -- as opposed to the flailing and finger-pointing issuing from the governor's office -- and they'll fall on the news like starving men on a ham sandwich.
Alan Mulally will take guff for being Ford's $36 million man for as long as he sits atop the Glass House. But if his incipient turnaround actually delivers, it'll be worth every penny to Ford's shareholders, its communities and, yes, the American auto industry.
Hold your fire, dear critic: This isn't an apologia for outsized executive comp. It's acknowledgment that Chairman Bill Ford may have been on to something when he fired himself back in September and announced that a Boeing Co. lifer would become CEO.
No guarantees at Ford
No less a Wall Street curmudgeon than Citigroup's Jon Rogers declared in a note to investors last week that Ford is "gaining traction in its restructuring" with "solid" results and "improved" operating cash flow. Let's hope so, considering that Mulally mortgaged the company, including the Blue Oval, to raise cash for it all.
Of course one quarter isn't a trend to bolster the confidence of savvy, would-be investors. That comes with stopping the slide in retail market share, delivering a realistic contract with the United Auto Workers, cutting costs aggressively, streamlining (and quickening) product development.
There are no guarantees Ford will actually do any of that, though I can't help but recall the old aphorism about the ability of an imminent hanging to focus meandering minds. That Mulally has seen this movie before, at a post-Sept. 11 Boeing, helps, too.
Competence trumps mojo
The good news is that Ford is delivering some black numbers outside North America, including the chronically hapless Premier Automotive Group (thanks mostly to Volvo and Land Rover), and that its quality is improving.
The bad news is that it still doesn't have enough competitive products in the right segments, the earnings calendar seems to turn faster than its product development calendar and its marketing acumen often seems stuck in a dull, unimaginative time warp.
Still, there's more direction, discipline and realism and less chaos and confusion at Ford than six months ago. But the mojo's not back, and that's OK.
Anyone who takes more than a moment to think about it would take competence, execution and forward-motion in fixing the business over the alternative. That would look more like things these days in Lansing -- rudderless, clueless and lost.
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