Harsh campaign rhetoric, followed by a struggle to stay in alignment
The complex job of keeping Ford Motor Co. in the good graces of the Trump administration is no longer Mark Fields’ concern.
Fields’ brief tenure as CEO, which ended Monday, coincided with a Donald Trump presidential candidacy that cast a harsh spotlight on the company’s global production base. While Fields ultimately earned a seat on the White House’s advisory council on manufacturing jobs, his attempts to find common ground with the Trump administration on economic policies were clouded by differences over border taxes and immigration.
In a presidential campaign where both parties focused on the negative impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement on manufacturing workers, Ford ended up in Trump’s crosshairs when Fields publicly announced plans to build a $1.6 billion assembly plant in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, and move production of the Focus there.
While no U.S. job cuts were involved, Trump seized on the move to criticize Ford as a job exporter, threatening hefty tariffs against the company and leaving Fields to defend its decisions and clarify the record.
Once Trump was elected, Ford officials engaged in a public relations campaign to limit Trump’s public criticism in speeches and on Twitter, using a pair of big announcements to help rehabilitate Ford’s image.
First, in December, the automaker reversed course on plans to close an assembly plant in Louisville, Ky., and move production of the Lincoln MKC crossover built there to Mexico in 2019. Then, in early January, the company canceled the plant in San Luis Potosi and said it would invest $700 million at its Flat Rock, Mich., assembly plant to produce electric and autonomous vehicles.
Trump, still weeks away from taking office, took credit for saving jobs at Ford, implying he forced the automaker’s hand.
Fields and his team attributed both moves to market dynamics and some long-planned production shifts — neither move would have involved U.S. job cuts — but also cast them as a vote of confidence in President-elect Trump’s purported ability to create a more favorable business environment at home through tax cuts, infrastructure investments and deregulation. Specifically, Fields expressed hope for a reopening of the EPA’s review of federal fuel economy standards, which the administration has agreed to deliver.
“We’ve made this decision independently on what’s right for Ford, but we look at all the factors,” Fields said in January of the San Luis Potosi cancellation. “Our view, we see a more positive U.S. manufacturing business environment under President-elect Trump and the pro-growth policies and proposals he’s talking about.”
Ford did proceed with other investments in Mexico, and this month it announced plans to cut salaried positions in the U.S.
While Ford has supported Trump’s calls for reductions in the corporate income tax rate and other changes in tax policy, it has voiced concern with a Republican proposal that would impose a border tax on all imports to help offset revenue losses from lower individual and corporate tax rates. Ford also came out against Trump’s January executive order to restrict immigration from certain Mideast nations.
“Respect for all people is a core value of Ford Motor Company, and we are proud of the rich diversity of our company here at home and around the world,” Fields and Bill Ford said then in a joint statement. “That is why we do not support this policy or any other that goes against our values as a company.”