Female in driver seat for Ford's overhaul
By DEE-ANN DURBIN
By DEE-ANN DURBIN
DEARBORN, Mich. — It was the growl of engines that first lured Anne Stevens to the auto business. When she was still a toddler, she remembers hearing the race cars start up on the dirt track at a Pennsylvania fairgrounds. She broke away from her parents, ran to the fence surrounding the track and watched in awe.
"I remember my father coming over and trying to pry me off the fence, and I'm yelling 'No! No!' " Stevens said in a recent interview.
Five decades later, Stevens has risen to the top of that business. She's the first female executive vice president at Ford Motor Co., where she's overseeing a major restructuring at the No. 2 U.S. automaker.
Last week, Ford chairman and CEO Bill Ford said Stevens will be part of a five-member team reporting directly to him under a new management structure resulting from the pending departure of Jim Padilla, president and chief operating officer.
But when she leaves her corporate office, Stevens can still be found at the racetrack.
"I just enjoy being out there with cars and people and just really getting into the relationship," said Stevens, 57. "It's part of who I always was."
Stevens said racing appeals to her because it requires a mix of calculation, teamwork and individual daring.
"If I go in a car out on the track, the first couple of laps I take will always be slow, and that's because what I'm doing is looking at where the markers are, just analyzing the feel of the car, versus some of the people who just get in the car and put pedal to the metal. I'll do pedal to the metal, but never the first time out," Stevens said.
"I guess that's why I have the job I have. I'm the balance between analytics and guts."
It will take both to turn around Ford's struggling North American operations, which lost $1.6 billion last year as U.S. sales fell and the company's costs for healthcare, pensions and materials continued to rise. Ford's U.S. market share is now around 18 percent, down from 26 percent a decade ago, according to WardsAuto.com.
Stevens has been at the center of Ford's turnaround efforts since October, when she was named to her present position. She and Mark Fields, Ford's recently appointed president for the Americas, oversaw development of the company's Way Forward plan, which calls for eliminating up to 30,000 jobs and closing 14 facilities by 2012.
Charles Fleetham, a Farmington Hills-based management consultant who has worked with Ford, said sales to women have traditionally been a weakness and Stevens can help change that.
"Having a woman that is capable of helping the company change and be more responsive to all potential customers is really critical to Ford's future," Fleetham said.
"She has the capacity to help the organization through the suffering, the emotional stamina to endure it," he said.
Stevens almost didn't work in the auto industry. She wanted to be a doctor, but a nun at her high school told her girls couldn't be doctors and steered her into nursing instead.
"I was top in my class until they put me on the floor and I saw that they were wanting me to change bedpans, and I quit," Stevens said.
She took a job in the engineering department of a phone company, and after marrying and having two children, she and her husband both decided to go back to school.
Stevens earned a degree in mechanical and material engineering in 1980 and took a job with Exxon-Mobil Corp. Her rise up Exxon's corporate ladder may seem meteoric, she says, but it was filled with bumps.
"I had a boss who told me that if I really wanted to reach my potential there, I had to get rid of my excess baggage, and he meant my husband and kids," Stevens said. "So it wasn't clean sailing."
Stevens is also proud of her depth of experience and the years she spent on the plant floor.
"I'm a gearhead. I'm not the kind of person that thinks that you go get an MBA from a top school and then expect to be a CEO," she said. "I think you can be a better business leader if you know how to put those pieces together."