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Nasser turns turnaround specialist
- Former Ford CEO joins Bank One’s buyout arm

Detroit, Nov. 12: Jacques A. Nasser, the fiery former chief executive of the Ford Motor Co, said Monday that he was joining Bank One’s leveraged buyout arm and would become non-executive chairman of its highest profile investment, Polaroid.

The announcement puts Nasser, 54, back in business a little more than a year after being forced out at Ford by William Clay Ford Jr., the chairman and family scion who succeeded him as chief executive. It also finds him reinventing himself as a turnaround specialist at One Equity, a buyout firm that is an arm of Bank One.

But the notion of Nasser in such a role puzzled some analysts. Soon after he left Ford, the company reported a $ 5.5 billion loss for 2001, and Ford’s new management team scrambled to draft an ambitious turnaround plan to make the company competitive again.

The analysts question whether, given his track record at Ford, Nasser is the best choice to salvage the bankrupt Polaroid, another venerable American icon.

Nasser said his top priority at Polaroid would be to find a new chief executive, but he added that he needed time to assess the situation before getting into more detail about Polaroid’s prospects. Of his tenure at Ford, he said: “If you don’t make any mistakes, it means you’re not doing very much. I’ve made mistakes. I couldn’t even start to tell you how many I’ve made. I also think there are many good things and many positives I look on as well.”

“We got the company through the biggest crisis it ever faced with the Firestone situation,” he added, referring to the controversy surrounding fatal rollovers of Ford Explorer sport utility vehicles that were equipped with Firestone tires.

Today, few on Wall Street are kind when assessing Nasser’s performance. When he was elevated to chief executive in 1999, he was a hard-charging, revolutionary executive in the mold of General Electric’s Jack Welch and was highly praised for his work in Ford’s overseas operations.

Nasser promised to remake Ford from a carmaker to a consumer products company and branched out into ancillary businesses from car repair shops to dealerships to Wingcast, a failed venture with Qualcomm to put wireless devices in cars. He also led the acquisitions of Volvo and Land Rover.

But in the last couple of years his strategy’s drawbacks came into sharp relief. Most analysts think that while Nasser was broadening Ford’s reach he did not do enough to keep its core business competitive. As a result, the pace of product development slackened, quality rankings slumped and Ford’s cost structure made General Motors look svelte by comparison. On top of that, Nasser’s style alienated many of the company’s main constituencies, from dealer groups that resented the company’s incursion into dealerships to white-collar workers who objected to a new corporate grading system.

Scott Hill, an auto analyst at Sanford Bernstein, called Nasser’s tenure “an abject failure”.

“He got carried away with visions of grandeur in an industry that faces fundamental reality checks,” he said, adding that he had “severe reservations” about his prospects for turning around another company.

Nasser said he was not surprised he had come under such criticism.

“That tends to happen whenever there is a change of leadership teams,” he said. “I look forward and I don’t look back as an individual. I don’t look back with any remorse.”

He called Ford “a strong leader in the company at a very difficult time.”

For Polaroid, which filed for bankruptcy protection last year and whose main business has been overwhelmed by digital cameras, perhaps any change is good.

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