DEARBORN, Mich. — Ford Motor Co. chairman William Clay Ford Jr. took over as chief executive of the struggling automaker Tuesday after the ouster of Jacques Nasser, becoming the first Ford in 22 years to run day-to-day operations.
“We’ve been given an amazing legacy, and we’re going to build an even better one,” said the 44-year-old great-grandson of Henry Ford.
Nasser’s fate had been the subject of widespread speculation as the world’s second-largest automaker lost sales amid the Firestone tire debacle and questions about the quality of its vehicles.
Ford complimented his predecessor, saying Nasser “made many significant contributions to our business operations around the world, and we all appreciate his dedication.” He said the job “is not something I sought, but something the board thought was necessary.”
Nasser, 53, earned the moniker “Jac the Knife” for his prodigious cost-cutting. He took over as CEO in 1999 when Ford was poised to overtake General Motors as the world’s top automaker.
But last year, Ford was shaken by the news that people were dying in accidents when the treads separated from Firestone tires, most of which were installed on Ford Explorers. Federal authorities say there is no evidence the Explorer’s design was at fault, but the automaker has reportedly spent millions to settle more than 100 Firestone-related lawsuits.
Just last week, Ford settled a lawsuit over allegedly faulty ignition systems for vehicles dating from 1983 to 1995. The plaintiffs said the settlement could cost Ford as much as $2.7 billion for repairs, a figure the automaker disputed.
Nasser resigned Monday afternoon during a meeting with Ford.
“This seemed to be the right time,” Ford said. “Outside events like Firestone weighed heavily on management distraction.”
Ford stock was down 9 cents to $16.12 in afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange following the announcement.
“Obviously management thinks it was the right thing to do,” said Jim Hall, vice president of AutoPacific, an industry consulting firm. “But it’s a tough time for any kind of shake-up. During economic times like these you want continuity.”
The last time a Ford ran daily operations at the company was in 1979, when Henry Ford II resigned.
Ford Jr. faces a rebuilding task.
Ford’s market share is down, slipping during the first nine months of 2001 to 22.6 percent from 22.8 percent a year ago.
Sales of Ford vehicles through September were down 11 percent from the first nine months of 2000, a record sales year for the industry. In the third quarter of 2001, Ford lost $692 million after earning $888 million a year earlier.
Looking for ways to save money, Ford announced in August it would cut 4,000 to 5,000 salaried positions by the end of the year through voluntary buyouts or early retirement packages. More restructuring moves are expected.
The management shake-up includes the elevation of North American group vice president Nick Scheele to chief operating officer. Known as “Mr. Fixit,” Scheele was brought in last July in the first sign that Nasser’s job was on the line.
Nasser’s ouster ends a 33-year career with Ford.
He was the executive out front, pleading the automaker’s case during the Firestone debacle that began last fall when Bridgestone/Firestone recalled 6.5 million tires and the safety of Ford’s most popular SUV was called into question.
Nasser was convinced the tire maker was producing an inferior product, and he launched a $3 billion program in May to replace 13 million tires that were not part of Bridgestone/Firestone’s original recall. The tire maker responded by severing its nearly 100-year old relationship with Ford.
The tire replacement program was viewed as a public relations coup for Ford, but its cost blew a hole in the automaker’s second-quarter earnings. Ford and its CEO took another hit when two influential industry reports showed the company losing ground in productivity and quality.