LOS ANGELES/DETROIT (Reuters) - Ford Motor Co (F.N) has spent six years under Chief Executive Alan Mulally developing its 'One Ford' global product strategy. Building on this plan is Mark Fields' top priority when he starts running the automaker's global operations next month.
"The priorities are almost exactly identical to the priorities we've been working on," Fields told reporters during a roundtable at the Los Angeles Auto Show. "First off is delivering the 'One Ford'. It's a timeless plan."
Fields' public comments on Wednesday were his most expansive on his upcoming role as chief operating officer since the second-largest U.S. automaker announced his promotion this month, effective December 1.
Fields, 51, who is often described as tenacious, has led Ford's largest business unit, North America, for the last seven years and is viewed as the front runner to succeed Mulally.
However, the automaker has stopped short of formally anointing the 23-year Ford veteran Fields as its next CEO, and has said Mulally will stay on through 2014, about a year longer than analysts expected.
Mulally is closely identified with Ford's recent success. Under his 'One Ford' plan, Mulally pushed Ford to build global models that can be sold around the world with a few tweaks. Ford has estimated the strategy helped make overall product development two-thirds more efficient between 2006 and 2012.
Fields, who will be Ford's first COO since 2006, said he will look for new opportunities to deploy the One Ford plan. In South America, for example, Ford's lineup will be almost 100 percent global models by 2014. It was almost entirely regional in 2011.
"We are just starting to see the full potential of the global scale and the operating margin benefits through the One Ford plan," Fields said. "We are really still at the beginning stages of operating truly as a global company."
FINDING A SUCCESSOR
In his new role, Fields said he will oversee Ford's day-to-day global operations, while Mulally will shape the long-term execution of his 'One Ford' plan and mentor top executives.
"We're so glad that Alan is going to be staying around and he's going to be leading the long-term development of the 'One Ford' plan," Fields told reporters at a second event Wednesday.
Analysts said Ford's top executives, including Fields, would benefit from Mulally's mentorship over the next two years. The move allows Mulally to help steer Ford's overhaul of its European operations as well as its expansion in China.
But other analysts said the move also muddied the waters, raising questions about who is in charge, while heightening the risk that Fields could be hired away.
"He knows he's being tested," University of Michigan Professor Gerald Meyers, a former chairman of American Motors Corp, said of Fields. "It's a matter of how much patience he has. Ford has to be very careful about that."
Mulally is credited with turning around Ford while avoiding the government bailouts needed to save its crosstown rivals General Motors Co (GM.N) and Chrysler Group LLC FIA.MI in 2009.
Ford has also become a more open and collaborative place during his tenure, a change from its previous internal culture of "empire building and back-biting," Executive Chairman Bill Ford said earlier this month.
Fields played a key role in ushering in this new internal culture, Mulally and Bill Ford have said. As COO, Fields will lead the weekly business review meetings that have been among the most visible signs of cultural change at Ford.
On Wednesday, Fields said preserving this focus is essential.
"You don't change a culture in just a couple of years," he said. "We are really dedicated to making sure that we root that in the organization and that's living it every day."
(Reporting By Nichola Groom in Los Angeles and Deepa Seetharaman in Detroit; Editing by Richard Pullin)