Ford CEO Jac Nasser's thinking escapes the confines of brick-and-mortar car making
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."
Well, not everyone. For decades, Ford was a safe and secure work environment. Make it past middle management and you could carve out your own fief, and count on a regular stream of bonuses and promotions. Ford was content to be a fast follower, mimicking the trends set by its more nimble competition. But Nasser is a leader, not a follower, and if you stand in his way, you'll be shoved aside. He's "encouraged" a cadre of ranking execs to retire. And for those who haven't gotten the message, there's a new white-collar grading system pointedly designed to reward only the most promising performers.
The faces at Glass House have changed since Nasser was named president. He's spread a net and lured in some of the industry's top talent, such as Mays and former DaimlerChrysler senior vice president Chris Theodore. "It's a transfusion, a way of looking at things through different eyes," says Nasser. But some of those who've fallen from grace haven't been willing to go without a fight.
When Nasser set up a workout room next to his office, word was spread that he'd lavished company money on a marble-laden bath, prompting the papers to pronounce him "Jacuzzi Jac." Then, last August, Ford officials woke to discover more than 100 top-secret documents outlining a decade's worth of upcoming product programs had been leaked to the Web site www.BlueOvalNews.com, which provides news about Ford Motor Co. Ford took the site's publisher to court. However, in what U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Edmunds described as a "David and Goliath" decision, she largely ruled against the automaker. Things would only get worse.
Until recently, the power-sharing management structure seemed to be working well; Bill Ford called it "an easy partnership." But late last November, angry words echoed down the normally mausoleum-quiet halls of Ford's executive suite. Fearing the worst, security rushed in, only to discover a tense standoff between Nasser and Bill Ford. It was a brief flare-up that might have been dismissed as business-as-usual in another organization. "There are folks inside who don't want this to die," complains a close Nasser confidant--it made the headlines for weeks--"and I'm afraid that if this continues to stay in the spotlight, it could make the situation untenable for both Jac and Bill." Nasser and Ford have gone out of their way to rebuild the appearance of a working partnership, but it's clear that the long knives are out for Jac the Knife.
Considering the perks of the post, it's easy to ignore the slings and arrows that accompany making an outrageous fortune for Ford Motor Co. But Nasser's 32 years have not always been easy ones for his family. One might be tempted to call Nasser's nearly 30-year marriage "traditional." Of course, Jenny Nasser has had to contend with her husband's endless travel and reassignments, even his kidnapping--during a short-lived, left-wing revolt in Argentina 20 years ago. "Most people thought I was divorced or a single parent," she said during an interview last year.
Yet the family has survived, and Jenny has thrived in her new role as Detroit doyenne. With a Mae West figure and an Ann Landers hairdo, Jenny Nasser can be loud, brassy and addictively charming, as much the master of her audience as Jac is. Bellied up to a bar, she can sally forth with a barrage of bawdy anecdotes. In formal regalia, holding summit in the Ford box on opening night at the Detroit Opera House, she can discourse on Mozart, amuse Pavarotti and raise millions to rebuild the long-dilapidated theater. As Jenny holds court, Jac might slip off to light up a cigar. He started smoking at a younger age than he likes to admit; teenage rebellion turned on its ear, for he couldn't abide the cigarettes his friends were smoking, "and as an alternative, I put a cigar in my mouth."
Jac Nasser defines the art of multitasking, his life "divided into 15-minute increments." So for this driven executive, "smoking a cigar is a way of having peace with myself, a time to relax and contemplate." Nasser relishes a cigar just as he takes pleasure in his watch collection. He's developed "a tremendous regard," he says fondly, for the way a good cigar is rolled, the color of its wrapper, its texture, the way "it is lovingly put together."
Though he won't say his overseas trips are driven by his love of Cuban cigars, that is one of the benefits of frequent travels abroad. Nasser's taste runs to smooth, creamy, spicy cigars, and in the United States he's likely to light up an Arturo Fuente Hemingway Short Storya quick smoke when he doesn't have much time--a Partagas or a Hoyo de Monterrey Excalibur No. 1. It's surprising that nobody's added "Jac Cigar" to Nasser's many nicknames, for he's seldom seen without one--at least any place he's allowed to light up.
But Nasser has plenty of monikers already, and he likes the latest ones, which refer to his increasing interest in the world of e-commerce. If Nasser and Bill Ford do have their differences, this is one place they share a common vision for their company. "Go back 100 years, Henry Ford put the world on wheels. Today, Ford Motor Company will put the Internet on wheels," the company heir declared when he joined Nasser on stage during the Detroit auto show.
It's no easy challenge bringing a $163 billion smokestack company into the twenty-first century. But if anyone has the energy and determination to pull it off, it's Jac Nasser. "I'm not willing to rest on past successes," he says, his dark eyes ablaze with determination. "It doesn't happen in this business. And those who stand still are just going to get run over."
Paul A. Eisenstein runs The Detroit Bureau, an independent automotive news service.