Detroit — In a company where the top jobs frequently go to graduates of Midwestern engineering schools — or to heirs of the founding family — Mark Fields’s rise to the top of Ford Motor Co. was hardly a sure thing.
But then, in an earlier era, when the Fields family name was Finkelman and the name of the company’s leader was Henry Ford, the odds would have been nil, or worse.
Just as Finkelman became Fields, however, the automaker founded by one of America’s most notorious anti-Semites has transformed itself over the decades. When Ford named Fields as its president and CEO on May 1, the 53-year-old executive became not just the first Jew to run that company, but also the first Jew to head any of the major U.S. automakers.
Said Jeffrey Gurock, a professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University: “I don’t think Henry Ford would have dreamed of a day where a Jew would [be] the head of his motor company. Part of his anti-Semitism was that Jews control but don’t work. He never would have dreamed that there would be a Jew putting people to work in the Ford Motor Company.”
Fields, who was born in Brooklyn and raised in New Jersey, and who graduated from Harvard Business School after a stint at IBM, signed on at Ford in an era when many of his classmates, Jewish and otherwise, were heading for potentially more lucrative jobs on Wall Street. Fields, for some reason, was different.
“I wanted to work for a company that made things,” Fields has been quoted saying over the years. The newly minted CEO said recently that he joined Ford because he liked cars and was impressed with the company’s products, such as the Taurus SHO, a pumped-up, sporty version of the standard sedan of the 1980s.
Field’s predecessor, Alan Mulally, relied heavily on a strategy that Fields drew up as a senior executive in 2005, when Ford’s big North American division was losing money. In fact, between 2005 and 2008, the company posted losses of more than $30 billion. Fields’s plan called for closing factories, laying off thousands of workers and using Ford’s design expertise in Europe to build better cars that could be sold globally. He also has been an advocate within the company for advanced technology and better products.
The company pulled through the crisis, while its two rivals, Chrysler and General Motors, sought bankruptcy protection. Between 2009 and 2013, Ford earned more than $42 billion in profits.
“Every job the company’s ever asked [Fields] to do, he’s done a really good job of it,” William Clay Ford Jr. (known widely as Bill), the company’s current executive chairman — great-grandson and heir to Henry Ford — said at the press conference announcing Fields’s ascension.