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Ford's Top Driver

Ford CEO Jac Nasser's thinking escapes the confines of brick-and-mortar car making
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Bacon, May/Jun 00

Call him "Jac the Knife," or "Junkyard Jac," if you prefer. He's heard them both, as well as "Jacuzzi Jac" and "Jac of E-Trades." One way or another Jac Nasser has probably earned all those sobriquets--and a few more. Indeed, today, he's "Jac-dot-com," driving onto the stage at Detroit's Cobo Arena in a funky little sedan that could have cruised off the screen at a video arcade.  

Forget horsepower and 0-to-60 times, declares Ford Motor Co.'s president and chief operating officer. Performance in the new world of e-commerce will be measured in megahertz and access times. So, unlike traditional concept cars, designed to showcase new styling, the boxy and controversial 24.7 prototype doesn't attempt to impress you with its looks. Nasser wants you to focus on the technology inside. It's loaded with an array of voice-activated, Internet-connected systems you can personalize to meet the whims of the moment. Even the look of the instrument panel can be changed at will. Give a command, and the 24.7 will adorn its dashboard with family photos; say the word, and the images will dissolve into frilly flower "wallpaper."  

Technology, Nasser asserts to an audience of skeptical global media and industry leaders at January's North American International Auto Show, "will transform how we think, design, manufacture and sell future products and above all, how we and our dealers connect and relate with our customers." If Nasser is sounding more like the head of a Silicon Valley start-up than the chief executive of an old-line manufacturing firm, it may explain the string of deals he's been inking with the likes of Yahoo!, the Web's premier portal, whose cofounder, Jerry Yang, now joins Nasser on stage.  

Both men are, in a sense, outsiders: Yang, from the virtual world of the Internet; Nasser, an immigrant's son, a lifetime away from the small village in Lebanon where he was born 52 years ago, and even farther from Australia, the country he learned to call home. He has made a career of globe-trotting, settling down in Detroit only when his feet landed firmly on the upper rung of the corporate ladder. On January 1, Nasser was named president and chief executive of the globe's second-largest automaker. It's an unusual power-sharing position with nonexecutive chairman William Clay Ford Jr., great-grandson of the automaker's founding father, Henry Ford. Being number two is a position that doesn't come easily to Nasser. With coal-fire eyes and an Aussie's nasal twang, he says--and does--what he believes. Nasser is convinced that Ford Motor Co. can be number one. So, whatever you call Ford's diminutive CEO, one thing's sure, Jac Nasser is casting a long shadow over an industry undergoing greater and more rapid change than at any time since Henry Ford rolled his first Model T off the assembly line.  

Jac Nasser's story reads like the Australian edition of Horatio Alger. Sturdy, intense and impeccably well-dressed, Nasser has an elegance and style that was more learned than inbred. He was born a worker's son in Lebanon just as Palestine was being partitioned. It was an era when fear and ethnic hatreds began to tear apart a country that was long the cultural oasis of the Middle East. Worried about the country's deteriorating political climate, Nasser senior moved the family to Australia when Jac was three. It was a multicultural training ground, Nasser recalls, "where I didn't think twice about speaking in three languages in one sentence." He heard many others on the school playground and, later, while working in the Southern Hemisphere's cultural melting pot. It helped him form the sense for diversity that shapes the team Nasser has put together today.  

From his earliest days, Nasser would wonder what makes things tick. As a youngster, he was fascinated by timepieces, and now that he can afford it, he's developed a penchant for fine Swiss watches. "The ultimate precision machine," he proclaims. His interest in things mechanical led him early on to the auto industry, "which represented to me the ultimate in international trade," he says. There's a peculiar Australian wanderlust that seems to infect the residents of that continent-sized island, and the expanse of Ford's global empire was a clear draw for Jac Nasser. "I always had an ambition to work in many countries," he recalls, and he's clearly been granted his wish. Since he joined the company in 1968, Nasser has circled the Ford world several times.  

It was during his stint as head of Ford's Australian subsidiary that Nasser earned the nickname "Jac the Knife." With the operation deeply in the red, he sliced away a third of Ford's Aussie workforce, bringing the operation back into the black. In his next job, at the helm of Ford's troubled European operations, Nasser trimmed another 10,000 jobs in the face of a devastating recession. But again, it helped Ford turn the corner--and won Nasser his third tour of duty in Detroit. This time, there's a good chance he's going to stay.  

Two long walls of windows flood Jac Nasser's office with light. They provide an expansive view of the ancient River Rouge factory complex that once allowed Henry Ford to dominate America's automotive market. But Nasser's attention is focused on another wall, which is covered with an array of eight computer and TV monitors. They flash the latest stock reports, a newscast from CNN, a market update from CNBC, and Nasser's latest e-mail. Even with the audio turned off, this cacophony of information might seem deafening to some, but Nasser can't get enough. He plans to install several more monitors, including two by the windows, so when he gazes off towards the Rouge, he'll take in the future, as well as the past. It's all in keeping with Nasser's hard-charging, take-no-prisoners approach to the increasingly competitive global auto business.  

Maybe it's that nomadic gene expressing itself--or just a belief that a good general leads from the front lines, but, that starkly modern office is one of the last places you're likely to find Jac Nasser.   With a holiday coming up, Ford will be shutting down, yet with the exception of his family's annual Christmas vacation, Jac Nasser views leisure time with disdain. Indeed, he obliges his body's need for rest only grudgingly, catching three, maybe four hours of sleep a night. And so, when Glass House, Ford's global headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, shuts for the long weekend, Nasser will soar east on the corporate jet--an array of senior executives at his side. It's just another weekday in Europe, after all, so there's no need to waste a day.  

On the return trip, Nasser will be joined by J Mays, the promising young stylist who penned the reborn Volkswagen Beetle and whom Nasser hired in 1997 to be Ford's design chief. Mays has spent nearly six weeks on the road, but as soon as the plane lands on Saturday, he'll lead the entourage on a tour of his styling studio. "It's a grueling pace," says Jim O'Connor, head of the flagship Ford division, "but there's so much happening, it just gives you the energy to keep going."   It's a pace Nasser doesn't demand of his inner circle; he expects it without question. It would be easy, says Nasser, "to sit back and say it's self-inflicted. It isn't. We have a choice--we can be the world's leading auto company, or we can't. People in the company are engaged and inspired and motivated by what they're doing."  

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Comments   2 comment(s)

wolé fayemi — Brooklyn, New York, United States,  —  May 13, 2011 11:32am ET

knowing paul eisenstein personally (having visited him at his house several times in detroit, and his company "the car connection" contractually bound by NDA to my company, leading, quite possibly, to the firing of Rick Wagoner of General Motors), i am quite sure this is a case of "IDENTITY THEFT", better known as BREACH OF CONTRACT.

wolé fayemi — Brooklyn, New York, United States,  —  May 13, 2011 11:35am ET

ironically, this was published the same day that the presentation: MASS CUSTOMIZATION, THE FUTURE OF THE AUTO INDUSTRY, was made to the U.S. Federal Reserve. The "concluding slide"?

MASS CUSTOMIZATION: The Retail Revolution

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