Can Jim Hackett Pull Off Another Michigan Miracle at Ford?

By Adrienne RobertsFeaturesDow Jones Newswires

Ford Motor Co.'s new boss doesn't have to sell a single car to win fans in the dozens of factory towns and suburban communities within a short drive of company headquarters. He already brought home Jim Harbaugh, coach of the University of Michigan's football team.

Ford Chief Executive Jim Hackett ran a major furniture company in the state for decades, but he wasn't widely known before taking the reins at Michigan's embattled athletic program in 2014. Turning around a college's sports department isn't a typical resume builder for an aspiring automotive chief, but it distinguished the 62-year-old executive in the race to replace Mark Fields.

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Bill Ford, the company's executive chairman, on Monday laid out a series of characteristics that Mr. Hackett brings to the job, including calling him a "transformational leader," visionary and "cultural change agent." Mr. Hackett is a former Ford board member and has been leading the company's Smart Mobility innovation unit for a year.

Mr. Ford, whose family has owned the Detroit Lions NFL football team since 1963, during a press conference also talked about Mr. Hackett's time as interim athletic director for the Wolverines and the bold move to lure a big name in football coaching. In addition to recruiting Mr. Harbaugh from the San Francisco 49ers NFL football team back to Michigan, where both men played football and where Mr. Harbaugh grew up, Mr. Hackett also secured a $169 million sponsorship pact with Nike Inc. considered to be a landmark deal for college athletics.

"You can say, well is (the University of Michigan) relevant to what Ford has got going on?" Mr. Ford said when announcing the company's leadership change. "He was walking into a very difficult and very public situation."

Mr. Hackett spent the bulk of his career steering furniture maker Steelcase Inc. He was recruited by University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel to serve as interim director of an athletic department in turmoil. The school's revered football program had been tarnished by a decade of mediocrity.

Mr. Schlissel said in an interview Monday that employees at the athletic department at the time were "unhappy and insecure." Mr. Hackett arrived after the previous athletic director stepped down amid intense scrutiny of moves that students, alumni and fans thought cheapened the program, disrespected the university's traditions and put student athletes' safety at risk.

Mr. Ford expects Mr. Hackett to re-energize the company's ranks of more than 200,000 employees. The auto maker is scrambling to confront a wave of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups edging in on the auto industry with electric vehicles, autonomous-car programs and other services.

Ford, an icon in American business and celebrated for not taking government bailouts during the financial crisis, was dented when Tesla Inc. surpassed it in market value in April. The development reinforced the view that Detroit is behind in the race to redefine the car business.

Mr. Ford said Steelcase's emergence as an industry powerhouse and innovator showed Mr. Hackett's business acumen. The job at Michigan "shows that Jim can be successful and operate in multi-environments," Mr. Ford added.

Before luring Mr. Harbaugh in December 2014, Mr. Hackett let the team play out the 2014 season to evaluate them, Mr. Schlissel said. Then, he aggressively courted Mr. Harbaugh in a recruiting process that captivated the sports world.

Mr. Hackett also oversaw the signing of an outfitting deal with Nike 2015. The deal, which took effect last summer and is worth $169 million through 11 years, brought the swoosh back to Ann Arbor, Mich., after the Wolverines sported Adidas AG apparel for nearly a decade.

"He owned the Nike deal," Mr. Schlissel said. He said Mr. Hackett took over one of the suites in the University of Michigan's football stadium during the off season and turned it into a war room. He had Nike, Adidas and Under Armour Inc. make proposals, and he laid out the details of the offers on display boards.

"He taught me it's not a matter of choosing dollars, it's about the relationship," Mr. Schlissel said. "He explained the process, his analysis, the goals and then gave us his recommendation. The process he went through was instructive."

The Michigan-Nike tie-up set the pace in an increasingly competitive college sports-licensing market, which over the past three years has seen skyrocketing sums given to top athletic programs.

Write to Adrienne Roberts at

Sara Germano contributed to this article.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 23, 2017 12:47 ET (16:47 GMT)