Special Report

Hero of Our Times

Let's lift our glasses to Ford's Alan Mulally.

By 4.9.09

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Just for the hell of it, I made myself a martini when I got home earlier tonight. I'm not much of a mixed drinks guy. A shot of whiskey and a cold beer are the usual for me. Still, there are times when you need to walk past the neighborhood bar and off to some side street lounge. Tonight was one those nights. And gin and vermouth are quite agreeable raconteurs.

The drink was needed because until recently I had felt immune from the recession. That façade cracked the other week when I realized that my finances had fallen behind my various obligations. That façade completely shattered the other night when my accountant called to explain that the tax refund check I was expecting to smooth things out isn't in the mail after all. Quite the opposite in fact.

Now, I don't want or need your sympathy. I don't deserve it either. Unlike the rich jerks wailing for their bailout from the federal government, I'll take responsibility for my mistakes and earlier short-sightedness. In this case it was being a little too loose with the cash when I did have it: buying drinks for friends, picking up the tab and trying to impress girls. Some of it I wasted too. I'll just have to muddle through now.

I would however like to offer a toast to one of the few leaders of corporate America who was not caught by the recession with his pants down around his ankles while desperately trying to find the fire escape: Alan R. Mulally, chief executive officer of the Ford Motor Company.

Ford is the sole member of the Detroit Big Three that is not in imminent danger of collapse and begging the Obama administration's indulgence to survive past Memorial Day. Indeed the company is in relatively robust shape, poised to gobble up GM and Chrysler's market share when those two finally circle the drain. All this can be chalked up to Mulally's leadership.

His competitors pushed the sales of SUVs and other outsize trucks and used the revenues to paper over their precarious finances, staggering under the weight of built-up debt and outrageously generous deals with labor and dealerships.

Mulally brought Ford into the black as well but also realized that the good times couldn't last. Before the fall, Mulally mortgaged everything in the company that couldn't roll into a showroom to build up cash reserves. He socked away $25 billion in total, to tide the company over in case of a downturn.

Ford cut fat too, closing factories and shrinking the workforce. He got the United Auto Workers to the table to renegotiate contracts. The Aston Martin, Jaguar and Land Rover brands were sold off.

Sure enough, the crash came. First, the spike in gas prices in 2008 caused sales overall to drop and the gas guzzling SUVs -- whatever their other attractions -- took the worst of it. Then the real estate bubble popped and soon the whole economy was in a full-blown recession. Sales fell off a cliff.

Mulally's foresight wasn't apparent at first. For one thing, he joined the GM and Chrysler CEOs in jetting to Capitol Hill last November to request a federal bailout. This gave the impression that Ford was hurting in the same way.

But even then Ford was distancing itself from its rivals. Mulally told Congress he only wanted the money as a backstop just in case things got worse down the road.

"We are seeking access to a $9 billion bridge loan, even though we hope to complete our transformation without accessing any of these funds," Mulally told the Senate Banking Committee in December.

You can see his thinking: If the government is making cheap loans available I'd be a fool not to be in line with the others. Once it became apparent, though, that Congress was not in a giving mood, Ford left the bargaining/begging table and hasn't been seen there since.

Today, GM and Chrysler, two venerable, once proud U.S. institutions have become branches of the U.S. government, toys that Obama will use towards what he himself called his "one goal" regarding the auto industry: building the kind of hybrid cars he and the rest of his administration favors.

To that end he has demanded that Chrysler merge with Fiat and ousted GM's CEO Rick Waggoner. It is not clear, to me any way, that Obama has the legal power to do either thing, but at this point both companies are too weak and too dependent on the government to raise an objection.

And so Detroit's Big Three may become the Detroit One. Well, so be it. Mulally -- who doesn't even have a background in the car industry -- has outmaneuvered his rivals, kept his company afloat in an awful economy and avoided the clutches of the government. And he did it all while taking a $1 annual salary. Not bad at all.

So I raise my martini glass to him. There aren't many heroes in this recession, but it's nice to know there is at least one.

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About the Author

Thirsty McWormwood is the nom de cyber of a writer in Washington, D.C.