President's Column

Saturday, October 10

Alan Mulally’s rescue of Ford offers hope for Washington state

In 2006, things were looking bleak for the Ford Motor Co. It was on track to lose $17 billion and there was a real question about whether the company that brought the automobile to the masses — and pioneered the modern assembly line process — would even survive.

And that was two years before the bottom dropped out of the U.S. economy, leading to the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

By now, we all know how the story ended. Bill Ford, the great grandson of Henry Ford, persuaded Alan Mulally to leave Boeing and come rescue his family’s company. Mulally took the helm just in time to engineer one of the greatest business turn-arounds of all time, not only saving Ford but also injecting new life into America’s manufacturing sector.

Mulally, who retired from Ford in 2014, gave a behind-the-scenes view of how he accomplished this amazing feat when he spoke Sept. 16 at the Association of Washington Business’ annual Policy Summit.

For students of business, it was an amazing story to hear first-hand. Mulally described in detail how he took a system that he perfected at Boeing — a system that relies on teamwork and transparency — and used it to overhaul the culture at Ford.

If you want to learn more about Mulally’s system, it’s documented in the 2012 book "American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company."

But you don’t need to be a fan of business history to take away something valuable from Mulally’s story. It also offers hope to anyone who follows the intersection of business and politics in Washington state.
The situation might not be as dire for Washington in 2015 as it was for Ford in 2006, but there are some common threads. Like Ford, Washington is facing some big challenges.

How do we satisfy the demands of the Supreme Court in its McCleary education ruling without raising taxes so high that we derail the economy?

How can we take the economic boom that’s going on right now in the Puget Sound region and extend it to the rest of the state?

How can we build upon our strong legacy of protecting the environment and grow jobs?

How do we ensure that the transportation funding and reform package approved by lawmakers this year – the first such package in a decade – leads to a safer, more efficient network of roads, bridges, highways and ports?

Taken alone, each of these is a big, daunting challenge. Taken as a whole, they might seem overwhelming.
But Mulally’s experience at Ford – and his previous experience saving Boeing following the 2001 terrorist attacks that triggered to a huge decline in air travel – shows what can be accomplished when people rally together around a shared vision.

Working together, we can achieve the goal of making Washington a top-10 state for education. We can adopt smart policies regarding taxes and trade that will help spread the prosperity in the Puget Sound region to the rest of the state. We can encourage employers to keep coming with new and better ways to protect the environment, rather than impose top-down, punitive regulation. And we can get Washington moving again.

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