You are in the co-pilot’s seat. You are hurtling to earth. You are falling faster and dropping further than ever before. You have never flown one of these things before and, but for the company behind the curtain, you are entirely alone. If you can’t sort this mess nobody can.
What single word comes to mind?


Not for Alan Mulally though. He knows that Ford is out of it. Chairman Bill sat in the hot-seat for two years while it all went horribly wrong. Today Bill is back in the boardroom, listening over the intercom to see what his designated co-pilot – the man who successfully pulled Boeing out of its dive – can do.

Mulally clicks on the microphone. The financial analysts hear the click and fall silent, listening intently. Mulally tenses, then speaks.

“We know what we are doing. We are dealing with it. And we are on plan.”

“Question for Al,” says Isaac Grimichi from Megabank: “You just lost US$12.7bn, the biggest loss in Ford’s 103-year history and 20% more than GM’s mind-boggling loss last year. You have said that the US car market will remain really tough for the next three quarters and you have mortgaged all your factories which has given you a huge interest bill to pay. Could you just tell us: what is the plan?”

The beads of perspiration begin to show. The hand on the joystick grips a little tighter….

Meanwhile, over in Torino, Sergio Marchionne cradles the microphone with the confidence of an opera star.

He does not wait for the preceding act in Detroit to finish. Why should he? Ford is only a small company. Fiat is worth more according to the newly swollen stock price.

The men in sharp suits are still grilling Mulally in Detroit when Marchionne clicks on, clears his throat, takes a heavy breath and begins what will be a steady stream of unscripted consciousness for half an hour.

It starts: “It has been a great year, satisfactory in all sectors. The fundamental turnaround of the last three years is now complete. All have shown gross margin expansion. The net income was EUR1.4bn better than it was last year if you take off all the unusual items. We have EUR8bn of liquidity and will now maintain five at all times. We will pay the first dividend since 2001. This has been a steady and disciplined recovery in terms of growth quarter over quarter.

“We are now in a position to talk intelligently about the period 2007 to 2010. Fiat Auto has increased 22%, Comau (the robots company) and Maserati have had their last year of negative numbers. This is an organisation that is being rebuilt. All the efforts that we have made on quality will be seen in full in 18 months and then we might be able to consider release of some of the provisions for warranty. For now we are over-investing in the network and in advertising to support the target of 2.2m cars that we have set.”

Pause. Deep breath.

The transformation of Fiat is astonishing. Its market value is not just greater than Ford but is also greater than GM which has shown signs of being able to climb out of the pit. That is the same GM that a couple of years ago slung back its shares in Fiat after it had paid US$2.5bn for an initial 20% stake. Fiat Group had then made a total trading loss of six billion dollars over the previous three years.

It is quite astonishing to have to accept the degree to which it is the quality of the leadership that makes the difference when an organisation has crumpled and is dying. Of Marchionne the question that would be the most interesting to pose at the analysts conference would be: “How the f-f-f-f-Fiat do you do it?”

Rob Golding