Ford jests CEO Mulally will stay until he's 80

Thu May 10, 2012 4:11pm EDT

* Execs sidestep questions about CEO retirement plans

* Timing of Mulally's retirement key focus for investors

* "Maybe 2030" -Ford chairman jests about CEO's exit timing

By Tom Hals

WILMINGTON, Del., May 10 (Reuters) - If Warren Buffett can run a company in his 80s, why can't Ford's Alan Mulally?

Top executives at Ford Motor Co have fielded questions for months about just when Mulally, 66, plans to retire as the company's chief executive. So far the No. 2 U.S. automaker has kept his plans quiet - mostly.

"Well, we said 2025," Chairman Bill Ford Jr joked to reporters after the company's annual shareholder meeting in Wilmington, Delaware, on Thursday. "Maybe 2030."

Mulally turns 85 in 2030. If he stays, he would be among a handful of corporate octogenarians like Buffett, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Buffett will turn 82 this year and said two years ago that he would like to work past 100.

Analysts, however, expect Mulally to leave within about two years. At the meeting Thursday, Mulally simply said, "We have a robust succession plan for every member of the team."

The prospect of Mulally's exit is one factor that has hurt Ford's stock this year, Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas said in a research note last week. So far in 2012, Ford shares have been flat, while the S&P 500 has risen about 8 percent.

Mulally took the reins at Ford in 2006, when the company was mired in a financial crisis. But the automaker rallied around the "One Ford" motto, Mulally's strategy to unify Ford's once-disconnected business units to drive down costs and build a global brand.

As a result, he is closely identified with the success of Ford, the only of Detroit's "Big Three" automakers to avoid a U.S. government-led bankruptcy. General Motors Co and Chrysler Group LLC both emerged from their bankruptcy restructurings in 2009.

Ford has now reached a point in its recovery that centers on boosting the profitability of its best-selling models and grooming a successor for its top executive. That is widely expected to be Mark Fields, who is in charge of Ford's operations in North and South America.

Uncertainty over Mulally's eventual retirement has not affected Ford's top executives, Bill Ford told reporters. "I don't think there's any anxiety on anyone's part on timing," he said.

"There's no new news, and needless to say the board is more than happy with the way Alan has led the company," he added. "It has been really fun for the two of us to work together, and I'd like to see it continue for some time."

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