Motor City Blogman: Why Microsoft Wants Ford’s Alan Mulally

Is there something to these rumors?

Earlier this week, Ford Motor Company Executive Chairman Bill Ford reiterated to Bloomberg that Alan Mulally will remain CEO at least through 2014. Ford went on to praise the depth of the automaker’s executive bench. That includes CEO-in-waiting Mark Fields, who told the same scoop-obsessed Bloomberg that his boss is “absolutely focused” on Ford. At age 52, Fields can count on a fairly long tenure at the top after the 68-year-old Alan Mulally finally decides to collect his pension.

When Alan Mulally does go, he will hand over the keys to a company in much better shape than how he found it. Rumors of a Mulally departure began after Bloomberg reported that Microsoft Corporation directors have talked about hiring him away to replace Steve Ballmer, 57, as chief executive officer. This all started after Mulally visited Ballmer and his erstwhile employer, which has since adapted a turnaround plan called “One Microsoft”—which means, I guess, that Word in Europe will share 80-90 percent of its parts with the Word sold in North America.

If Alan Mulally does leave for Microsoft, Bloomberg will not get the scoop. The only people who really know what’s going on are Mulally, Bill Ford, Ballmer and the Microsoft board. And they’re not talking – not even to their PR execs.

Is there something to these rumors? Yes, I’m sure that board members at Microsoft have asked the question, “what about Mulally?” The Ford CEO probably has had, at least, informal talks with the software giant. After their 2009 bankruptcies, General Motors and Chrysler both sought change agents who could attack corporate culture the way Mulally has. Chrysler got its own kind of change agent in Sergio Marchionne, and GM, having failed to find a CEO able to handle the media like Mulally, eventually found its own change agent, too, though Dan Akerson and his eventual successor will have to dig much deeper to effectively attack the core of GM’s culture.

No matter what happens, the interesting thing about the Mulally story is that Microsoft has talked to him at all. Remember how we were all wringing our hands about a non-car guy taking over ailing Ford? This, even though Mulally is an engineer by trade, and counts his manufacturing expertise as an important part of his success at the automaker. Shortly after he joined Ford in September 2006, my criticism of him was that he thought model updates and replacements took too long, an odd reaction coming from someone who had spent his career in the aircraft industry. Mulally, it seemed, wanted Ford to move as quickly as the computer industry, despite the greater complexities, much higher component costs and regulatory barriers of the auto industry. Great notion, but unrealistic.

Since then, he’s surely discovered that new models don’t take as long to develop as new aircraft, especially those with model names beginning in “7,” though they take far longer than operating systems or new tablet designs.

What makes the Mulally-Microsoft rumors interesting is that Silicon Valley has an underlying disdain for Detroit as an old, backward industry, unwilling to keep up with progress. Furthermore, it seems, all the computer industry bigwigs seem to have always been computer geeks, working in the business their entire careers, just as auto company execs once were all “car guys.” That Microsoft would even harbor the notion of hiring the non-computer-geek Mulally—who is three years past traditional retirement age, to replace Ballmer, who is eight years short of it—is a sign that the corporate culture in Redmond is in as much need of change as Ford’s was in 2006.

Of course, if the wild rumors do prove true and Mulally leaves to save yet another iconic company, his first order of business could serve Ford too. At Microsoft, he could fix MyFordTouch.

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