Ford Motor Co’s new chief executive officer transformed office furniture maker Steelcase Inc into a global leader, but in Michigan, he may be more revered as the man who turned around a troubled college football program. Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr., whose family owns the Detroit Lions football team, pointed to James Hackett’s accomplishments as the University of Michigan’s interim athletic director in 2015 while a member of the automaker’s board. Ford said at a news conference on Monday that Hackett hired Jim Harbaugh as head football coach and “left the department in much better shape than he found it.”
Hackett, an Ohio native who played football at the university under legendary coach Bo Schembechler, has run Ford Smart Mobility, a new unit established to oversee and coordinate the company’s forays in autonomous driving, ride sharing and other ventures, since March 2016. Before that, as CEO of Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Steelcase from 1994 to 2014, Hackett slashed thousands of jobs. He also began to reinvigorate and refocus the company on innovation, spearheaded by his 1996 purchase of renowned Silicon Valley design firm IDEO. Inspired by IDEO’s open-space designs, Hackett and Steelcase “reinvented the workplace, starting in Silicon Valley, and redesigned America’s offices,” said Marc Weiser, managing director of RPM Ventures, a venture capital firm based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and San Francisco.
Hackett joined Ford’s board in 2013, ahead of his retirement from Steelcase. He left the board when he became chairman of Smart Mobility, where he has helped oversee Ford’s acquisition of San Francisco ride sharing startup Chariot and its $1 billion investment in Argo AI, a self-driving startup focused on robotics and artificial intelligence. Bill Ford described Hackett, who reports to him, as “a catalyst for innovation.” The two got to know each other through Michigan business organizations and events, but Ford said traveling to Silicon Valley with Hackett gave him a new perspective.
Technology industry executives, whose offices had been designed and furnished by Steelcase, treated Hackett like a star. “To see Jim navigate that so well and to be held in such high regard out there …, it was a surprise,” Ford said. Hackett’s mission in his new role will include reshaping Ford’s management structure, which remains a hierarchy patterned on the U.S. military. As part of installing Hackett as CEO, Ford’s board also reshaped the management layer below him.
Hackett said he asked Bill Ford to oversee government relations and communications. In the past, when the great-grandson of company founder Henry Ford had not been the automaker’s CEO himself, he has sought to avoid overshadowing non-family CEOs. Hackett said in an interview on Monday that he wanted the company to make much more extensive use of market data. For example, it could cut inventory by better matching vehicle production to consumer demand. “You don’t have to guess what models they’re going to buy,” Hackett said.