AWARDS: 2004 Man of the Year

March 3, 2004
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Ford's loss could be someone else's gain.
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Mazda is currently producing the kind of cars we love at Automobile Magazine--affordable, stylish products with real character. Just think of the outgoing Protege, the 6, and the RX-8. Without Martin Leach, those cars never would have happened. The forty-six-year-old engineer shook up Mazda's R&D and product-development processes from 1997 to 2000 as managing director of product planning, design, and programs. Leach also has been responsible for Ford's product offensive in Europe, having served as vice president of product development, then as president and chief operating officer prior to his sudden departure from the company last August.
It might seem strange that we have given our Man of the Year award to a car company executive who is currently without a job, but Leach is exactly the kind of person car companies need, and his departure is symptomatic of the current problems at the blue oval. He's a certified car nut, one of the very few visionaries of the trade, an excellent engineer and driver, a pragmatic team player, and a genuinely nice guy.
So why is he jobless? "I threw in the towel because Ford of Europe, which I ran for almost a year, was drawn into the political ping-pong initiated by Ford worldwide," explains the amateur racing driver and part-time soccer coach. "I am hugely sad about the way things went, having dedicated all my working life to this company--but these days everybody seems to be out to get everybody else at the top of the house." A Ford employee since 1979, Leach left Cologne with the intention of taking over the helm at Fiat Auto from Giancarlo Boschetti, but in the end, the post went to Herbert Demel because Leach failed to wriggle himself out of his Ford contract, which allegedly contains a two-year no-compete clause.
During his twenty-four-year tenure with Ford, the Australian-born engineer's responsibilities were wide and varied. Asked to name his personal career highlights, he answers: "One really big achievement was to take the European commercial vehicle division to the top of the table. The doubling of the U.S. light-truck business falls into a similar category. I am also very proud of my years at Mazda, where we developed a new product philosophy and brand strategy that was highlighted by exciting cars like the Mazda 6 and the rotary-engined RX-8. Last but not least, I had begun implementing the so-called 45 in 5 strategy at Ford of Europe, a plan to launch forty-five fresh products between 2002 and 2007, starting with the Fusion, the Streetka, and the C-Max."
Under Martin Leach, Ford of Europe continued to consolidate its model portfolio, yet the sales slide seems unstoppable, and the company is drifting deeper and deeper into the red. At the end of the second quarter--when Ford of Europe posted an extraordinary $525 million loss--Leach called it quits. Did he jump, or was he pushed? "There was no point in carrying on," is the diplomatic reply. "One of the biggest disappointments in my business life was to come back to Cologne, finding a company only two-thirds the size it was when I left it. What the people in Detroit don't seem to understand is that you cannot cost-reduce yourself to profitability."
Some critics suggest that Leach is a product-development genius who had been promoted one level too high, but Ford's inability to retain key car guys such as Wolfgang Reitzle, Ulrich Eichhorn, and Leach is deeply worrying. Bill Ford must now rely on pragmatic strategists like David Thursfield, streamlined marketers like Mark Fields, and jovial jacks-of-all-trades like Nick Scheele. The new man in charge of the European satellite is former Mazda top manager Lewis Booth, a dedicated numbers man who will need to slash costs in order for Ford of Europe to remain competitive.
Leach, of course, is looking to his next challenge. "My enforced sojourn doing gardening won't last forever," he says. "I am determined to return to this industry as soon as the lawyers let me. This is my life, and there is a lot going on at the moment, from slow deaths to consolidation to emerging new competitors--just think of potentially hugemarkets like China. In an ideal world, I want to work for a major manufacturer who understands that brand-building, design, vehicle development, and quality are the key differentiators. To establish a solid competitive advantage, you need to bring better and cheaper products to market faster than your chief rivals. You also need to marshal your processes, your people, and your resources diligently and efficiently." Leach's lips are sealed as to where his next desk will be located, but several companies could use his help. Bob Lutz won't be around forever at General Motors, Toyota needs a wizard global product integrator, and the Volkswagen Group could do with an R&D chief.

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