Alan Mulally has a reputation for being decisive, so his declaration that he has “no plans to do anything other than serve Ford” – crushing speculation that he could leave to run Microsoft – should probably be taken at face value.
But Ford’s chief executive has wavered over big jobs before – notably when the carmaker was trying to lure him to Dearborn from Boeing in 2006.
Bryce Hoffman recounts in American Icon, his 2012 book about Mr Mulally’s rescue of Ford, how the Boeing executive first assured Ford that he had made up his mind, but was then convinced by Boeing CEO Jim McNerney to stay in Seattle. According to Hoffman, Mr Mulally called Bill Ford, the carmaker’s chairman, and said: “Bill, I am honoured that you asked me to serve. But I’m going to stay at Boeing.”
His Hamlet-like moment of indecision did not last long. Hoffman writes that “as soon as he hung up the phone, Mulally regretted making the call”. Within a week, Mulally had changed his mind and was on a plane east to start the Ford turnaround.
The opportunity to replace Steve Ballmer at Microsoft (assuming it was ever offered to Mr Mulally – Microsoft has never identified potential successors) is different. Mr Mulally is already running a large US company – in 2006 he was in charge of Boeing’s commercial aircraft division, having been passed over for the chief executive role. His age – he will be 69 this summer – may have made it easier for him to turn down Microsoft, just as the fact that he had recently turned 60 probably played a part in his 2006 decision to devote his next productive years to Ford. Finally, Mr Mulally has already pinned his future to Ford once, in late 2012, when he said he would stay at least until this year.
Still, it is hard not to hear in his reassurance to the Associated Press, about his devotion to Ford, an echo of the 2006 sentiments about Boeing that Hoffman attributed to Mr Mulally – sentiments that he ultimately buried in order to move to Ford: “Boeing was his baby. Mulally had nursed it through the ups and downs of the business cycle and an array of unprecedented challenges… How could he walk away before it was finished?”