Can Mark Fields Do to Lincoln What Alan Mulally Did for Ford?
Had Ford (NYSE:F) CEO Alan Mulally gotten his way, the company may not have bothered investing its time, energy, or money into resurrecting the Lincoln brand into what we see today. In fact, Mulally was apparently interested in letting the brand go, and it was Mark Fields, who becomes CEO of Ford on Tuesday, who convinced him that the luxury marque was worth putting in the effort to bring back.
As it turns out, convincing Mulally to hang in there with Lincoln might have been the easiest part of Fields’ job, as he is now responsible for generating appeal for Lincoln among younger buyers and pulling for the brand like what Mulally did for Ford. In short, turn it around.
Lincoln has largely ridden on the success of the Town Car in years past, but now that that era is over, it’s struggling to carve out a niche for itself and shed its frumpy, geriatric image. While it started with the MKZ sedan, the MKC crossover is helping shoulder the burden, and the MKX is getting an overhaul, as well. Even the Navigator, which has remained largely unchanged throughout the years, has gotten some attention.
“Our team is so enthused about Mark becoming CEO,” Matt VanDyke, director of global Lincoln, said in an interview with Bloomberg earlier this week. “Mark really understands and has instilled in all of us the strategic importance of the luxury business. It’s a small part of industry sales relatively, 8 percent and growing, but the contribution to the overall bottom line is a much higher percentage.”
The brand right now id more of a weight on Ford’s bottom line than it is beneficial. “The luxury line was robbed of resources over the last two decades while Ford invested in its Premier Automotive Group that included Jaguar, Aston Martin, Land Rover and Volvo, which Fields oversaw from 2002 to 2005,” Bloomberg reports, adding that for a long while, Lincoln was little more than some gussied-up Fords. And consumers knew it.
“Ford starved Lincoln of unique products for a long, long time,” Michelle Krebs, an analyst with researcher AutoTrader.com, told the news outlet. “Rebuilding the Lincoln brand is a long road.” It’s a road only made possible by Mulally’s sale of the European brands, which allowed the company to raise the necessary capital to come out of the recession still swinging and with the resources that Lincoln now demands. That amounts to roughly $1 billion, Bloomberg said.
VanDyke denied that Mulally’s support for Lincoln was ever in question. Mulally and Fields “have unique backgrounds and experiences and brought different perspectives,” he said to Bloomberg. “But they’ve both been completely, completely in unison on the strategic importance of Lincoln to Ford Motor Co.”
Lincoln’s biggest problem, though, may not be its products, but rather its image. The brand is fighting against German names that have spent decades carefully cultivating valuable brands that exude prestige, exclusivity, and which have garnered a loyal following. It’s now Lincoln’s job to show that it not only can it do the same, but that it can lure people out of their BMW X3s and Audi Q5s.
VanDyke, not surprisingly, is excitedly optimistic about Lincoln’s chances in that arena. “We’ll be able to attract younger, first-time buyers, either young couples or those with small families,” VanDyke told Bloomberg. “Equally, we’ll attract a number of empty nesters we see continuing to trade down from large and medium utilities.”
Lincoln has already separated itself from other brands by not pursuing a performance-based philosophy, instead favoring one more rooted in fuel-efficient powertrains, craftsmanship, and the overall buying experience. Lincoln no longer offers a V8 engine in its lineup: The most powerful unit is now the 3.5 liter EcoBoost in the new 2015 Navigator.
However, performance is one of those things that’s often expected in a luxury car, so whether Lincoln will be able to build itself back up without it remains to be seen. Only time will tell if its new path will succeed.