Odell, Ford’s new global sales boss, has a world of challenges

Stephen Odell, Ford's new global sales boss, has a world of challenges

Mark Fields’ biggest management shuffle since taking over as Ford CEO involves a job swap for two key deputies — Jim Farley and Stephen Odell — who bring very different strengths to their new roles.

As global sales and marketing chief, Farley has displayed enthusiasm and spawned grand ideas. Odell’s broad operational experience and attention to detail helped him lead Ford of Europe through years of severe recession.

The change had been in the works for a number of months, comes as Ford of Europe nears a return to profitability and with the automaker’s global sales achieving record highs.

The switch will give Farley, 52, his first opportunity to run one of Ford’s major business units and his first European stint since the 1990s, when he was a fast-rising star at Toyota. His lack of high-level operational experience was seen as a weakness when Ford was evaluating successors to retiring CEO Alan Mulally.

At the same time, Ford will have the well-traveled Odell, 59, in a global role at a time when the Chinese and North American markets are slowing and South American operations have been hit by economic turmoil there.

Odell is “a very talented leader with an incredible business acumen,” said Jim O’Sullivan, who worked under Odell at Mazda and later became its North American CEO.

“He had to handle many markets and brands and was actively involved in our North American growth strategy,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s good for Ford and good for him.”

A person with direct knowledge of the thinking behind the move said it was not prompted by any dissatisfaction Fields had with their performance or with the expectation that either would need to “tear up” their predecessor’s plans. Farley wanted to expand his operational experience, this person said, while Odell, a 34-year Ford veteran, has a significant marketing background and was open to a move back to the United States.

Another person directly familiar with the job swap said Ford’s appointment a year ago of Barb Samardzich as Ford of Europe’s COO was done with the idea of helping Farley in his upcoming role. Samardzich has considerable powertrain engineering and product development experience. Both sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the move publicly.

After serving as vice president of sales and marketing for Mazda North America in the early 2000s, Odell held various senior positions in Japan and Europe with Ford, Mazda and Volvo Car before taking over Ford of Europe in 2010, just as that region plunged into recession. Farley had a number of sales and marketing roles with Toyota before Mulally lured him to Ford in 2007.

“Both Farley and Odell have had key roles in Ford’s recovery,” Stephanie Brinley, an analyst with IHS Automotive, wrote in a report Friday, Nov. 7. “A shift in responsibilities might also be necessary to keep both Farley and Odell from burning out on their current roles. … A change may be welcome.”

Chris Donkin, a London-based automotive headhunter with the search firm Korn Ferry, said Odell “demonstrates many of the characteristics associated with what we identify as ‘agile leadership’ — flexible and adaptive, with a broad and varied career profile, and the ability to move swiftly back and forth between strategic vision and operational detail.”

Ford’s U.S. dealers have mixed opinions of Farley, whose passion and outspokenness have gotten him into some sticky situations. Terry Massey, general manager of Ken Stoepel Ford in Kerrville, Texas, said he appreciated that Farley shunned stair-step incentive programs and minimized “huge push months” when dealers had to pursue overly ambitious targets.

“I think he did a great job for Ford in that capacity,” said Massey, who talked with Farley at a recent ride-and-drive while sitting in the passenger seat as Farley did hot laps. “He scared the bejeebers out of me,” Massey said, “but he’s quite a driver.”