Ford chief executive Alan Mulally has received a huge vote of confidence from Ford chairman and founding family member Bill Ford Jr.

“I want Alan to stay as long as he would like to stay and hopefully that is quite a while,” Ford Jr told Reuters on the sidelines of a Detroit Economic Club event.

Mulally, hired from Boeing in 2006, is widely credited with turning the automaker around and it has so far avoided the government bailout and bankruptcy of its two Detroit rivals, GM and Chrysler.

Reuters noted that Bill Ford’s comments marked the first time he had addressed Mulally’s stewardship as chief executive since GM and Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy protection with new ownership and management.

Though an auto industry outsider when appointed, Mulally is now the longest-serving CEO among the US automakers.

Bill Ford told Reuters the automaker has had a succession plan since the day Mulally was hired but declined to provide details.

“Any good corporate governance dictates that you always have succession planning, and that is something we do on a regular basis,” Ford said. “As a chairman that is obviously something that I spend a lot of time on.”

Mulally has been credited with speeding up decision-making by stripping away layers of management and holding weekly meetings to pull together officers from across regions, emphasising a ‘One Ford’ focus.

He’s also started to introduce European models, such as the Transit Connect small van launched this summer, and that will be followed by the Fiesta next year and next generation Focus.

Analysts have credited ‘One Ford’ and the borrowing of about US$23bn in late 2006 to finance the turnaround plan, as helping put the automaker in a better position than its US rivals to navigate the severe US recession.

The automaker has said it expects to return to at least break-even in 2011 on a yearly basis.

The US economy has shown encouraging signs, but anyone’s ability to call a bottom would be “tenuous,” Bill Ford told Reuters.

“For me unemployment is the big thing because it is hard to say the economy is getting better until people are getting back to work, and so that is something I look at very closely,” Ford said.

“We have seen over the last several months a small but steady increase in customer traffic and purchases,” he said. “We feel encouraged, but we are certainly nowhere (near) yet where we would like to be in terms of the economy.”

Ford Motor on Tuesday reported a 17% US sales increase for August, the second consecutive month of increases for the company, with support from the US government’s ‘cash for clunkers’ incentive programme.