George Will

Mulally's vision for Ford is forward-looking nostalgia. He wants to restore Ford to the role it had in "the middle America that we grew up with." But to "spiff up the blue oval" -- Ford's trademark -- he must market cars designed on the assumption that gasoline prices "are staying up." He talks about the need to "take the hard decisions" and "rationalize our product family" with a "simplified product portfolio." He stops short of talking -- yet -- about scrapping brands. But why is the company still making the Mercury, the average age of whose buyers is 55. Perhaps because it cost GM $1 billion -- payments to dealers, etc. -- to eliminate the Oldsmobile brand.

Mulally says production efficiencies can solve half the company's economic problem. That will not suffice unless Ford efficiently produces exciting products. Mulally, a quick study, already has a rudimentary grasp of Detroit-speak: He says Ford must develop new products "with curb appeal -- the 'wow' factor."

But in 2001, with much fanfare, Ford rolled out a new version of a 1950s success, the Thunderbird. It was underpowered, handled badly and is no longer in production. Recently, the company heavily advertised the Lincoln Zephyr. But now it is called the MKZ. Why? This is the behavior of a company whose left hand does not know what its other left hand is doing.

Seventy percent of the people who go through O'Hare Airport, Mulally says, are not going to Chicago. His point is that a snapshot of customers -- moving targets -- does not tell you where they are heading. Henry Ford, according to Mulally, said that if, when he founded his company, he had asked potential customers what they wanted, they would have said faster horses. Mulally has bet the company on its ability to develop ``curb appeal'' products that people do not yet know they want, and to develop them before the company, which burned through about $6 billion in the last two quarters of 2006, burns the rest of its borrowed cash.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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