Meet the office furniture CEO who landed the top job at Ford.
Jim Hackett is an underthe-radar darling of the management guru set
Ford’s new chief executive — a 62-year-old former office furniture executive now tasked with jump-starting the world’s oldest automaker amid frustrations over the stock price and growing threats from Silicon Valley rivals — is not exactly a household name. But in management and design circles, as well as in Silicon Valley, Jim Hackett has long been something of a star for his transformation of Steelcase and his ability to foresee big changes in the way people work.
Since getting the top job at Ford, he has been described as a turnaround specialist, thanks to his record at Steelcase, which involved deep job cuts and a reimagining of its business, as well as his recent tenure as athletic director at the University of Michigan, where he brought in NFL coach Jim Harbaugh to revive the football program’s fortunes.
But management and design experts say that gives short shrift to the traits that make Hackett an inspired choice to take the helm at Ford: experience running a family-owned company; an early adoption of the now popular “design thinking” approach to product development; a willingness to learn from outsiders and stay hands-off with investments; and a focus on the future of consumer behavior.
“He’s focused on trying to uncover the non-obvious needs people have. What would make their life better? What would they actually value if you gave it to them?” said David Kelley, a longtime friend of Hackett’s and the founder of IDEO, the well-known design firm in which Steelcase once held a majority stake. (Ford is working with IDEO as a client, an IDEO spokeswoman said, and Steelcase retains a small stake in IDEO.)
Many management experts see parallels in Hackett’s work reimagining the spaces where people work and the ones where they drive in an industry that is also undergoing wrenching change. “Everything from Uber to driverless cars — there is a massive transformation in the auto industry,” said Noel Tichy, a University of Michigan management professor who has worked with Hackett. “He’s done it before. The fundamental skill sets are the same.”
Steelcase, a company with $3 billion in annual revenue, might seem an unusual proving ground to running Ford, one of America’s most iconic companies with more than $141 billion in sales. “What can be less sexy than Grand Rapids and office furniture?” said John Bacon, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based author who wrote a book about the revival of the football program at Michigan under Hackett’s direction.
But in many ways, management experts say, it’s a natural fit.
For one, Hackett was the first nonfamily CEO to run Steelcase when he took over in 1994. While Ford has had plenty of outside leaders, the Ford family is a dominant presence that CEOs must learn to navigate, said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a Yale School of Management professor. Although the family owns less than 2 percent of the total outstanding shares, it holds some 40 percent of voting power, thanks to its dual-class share structure. Bill Ford Jr. is executive chairman.
Hackett “will know how to make that an asset,” Sonnenfeld said. With his background, Hackett, who is a personal friend of Ford’s, could “take that kind of ownership structure and make it a competitive edge where they’re with you rather than against you.”
At Steelcase, Hackett was an early devotee of design principles that helped him transform the company, driving the shift from a private, cubicle-centered workplace to the more team-driven, “open office” environment many businesses use now. Realizing that people would work more collaboratively, and more centered around mobile technology, he pushed for changes such as office furniture on wheels that could be reconfigured and tables that integrated with laptops.
“What he does really well, which is always going to be a constant in work and leadership, is looking at the future of people’s behavior,” said Kathryn Segovia, head of learning experience design at Stanford University’s design school, who worked with Hackett at Steelcase in 2012. “Ford has largely seen itself as an automobile company for so long. What Jim is really great at doing is reframing a company around a mission, around a need that people have.”
Segovia served as one of the outside “reverse mentors” Hackett brought in each summer.
IDEO’s Kelley, who is also the founder of Stanford’s design school and who once had an always-on video conference line between his office and Hackett’s that they called the “wormhole,” says Hackett often sends him links to issues going on in the design field before he knows about them.
As Ford grows its “mobility services” business, tech start-ups it invests in could be encouraged by how Hackett managed Steelcase’s investment in IDEO. In 1996, Steelcase took a majority stake in the firm. Hackett let IDEO operate autonomously but used it to help infuse design sensibilities into the furniture company’s thinking. “He didn’t suffocate it,” Sonnenfeld said. “He has a track record to prove he can pull in great talent and give them room to breathe.”
Hackett also knew when it was time to let go, being willing to sell back the majority ownership when IDEO’s partners were ready. According to one strategy consultant who worked with Hackett, “most CEOs would have said, ‘Tough luck, we own you.’ Not Jim. He realized that setting IDEO free and holding only a minority share would be the smartest thing.”
That IDEO partnership also deepened Hackett’s connections in the tech world — Kelley says Hackett knows everyone at Stanford and is “an insider here; he’s not going to miss what’s going on in Silicon Valley.” It was one thing Bill Ford Jr. cited as having an impact on Hackett’s hiring.
In a visit last year, Ford said in a news conference, he watched tech executives greet Hackett with hugs. “A number said to me: ‘My gosh, he’s one of the real original thinkers that we know, and you guys are lucky to have him,’ ” Ford said. “To see Jim not only navigate that so well but to be held in such high regard, it made an impression on me.”
Jim Hackett was an executive at office furniture manufacturer Steelcase, as well as athletic director at the University of Michigan.