DETROIT — Bill Ford has frequently spoken of a desire to spark a cultural revolution within Ford Motor, and now he has a CEO with record of doing just that kind of thing.
Ford, the automaker's executive chairman, said Jim Hackett is "a proven transformational leader" and "a visionary thinker" who dramatically improved the culture at Steelcase, a Michigan furniture company he ran from 1994 to 2014.
Hackett, 62, made Steelcase more innovative as the way its customers used their workspaces began changing rapidly, Ford said.
At Steelcase, founded nine years after Ford, Hackett overhauled the company's identity in the sort of way that the man he is replacing — Mark Fields — had been attempting to do.
"We still make furniture but we're in the human-insights business," Hackett said when Steelcase celebrated its centennial in 2012. "We know from experience that insights aren't things you can make up. They're not magic; they're really hard-won. They're hard to find. And we spend a ton of time and money mining for them."
Hackett is a former board member at the automaker who spent most of his career in the furniture business before Fields tapped him to steer Ford's investments in new forms of mobility.
Hackett's automotive experience is limited to the three years he spent on Ford's board of directors, beginning in 2013, and 14 months overseeing Ford Smart Mobility, a subsidiary Fields created to coordinate work in car sharing, ride hailing, autonomous driving and other emerging trends.
Hackett is charismatic, inspirational and "a real strategic thinker," said David Kelley, the founder of IDEO, a global design company that works closely with Steelcase.
"He's really good at painting a picture of the future and inspiring the rest of us to follow him into the future," Kelley said. "He has a sixth sense about where things are going."
Hackett also has the fortitude to make tough operational decisions when necessary, Kelley said, as well as an ability to plot a path far into the future ambitions without neglecting today's needs.
"He's one of the best at this tension between doing the future and making the present business go," Kelley said.
Steelcase had an ownership stake in IDEO while Hackett was CEO. Hackett set up a 24-hour audio and high-definition video connection between his office in western Michigan and Kelley's office in Silicon Valley to promote more efficient collaboration. Hackett called it "the wormhole."
"It may not look it from his resume, but he's a super techy guy," Kelley said. "He's gung-ho about technology."
Early in his tenure as Steelcase CEO, Hackett moved out of his 700-square-foot office and into much smaller, more open quarters designed with the help of a psychologist to create a "leadership community" for company executives.
Ford said he was impressed to learn over the past few years how many business leaders in Silicon Valley know and admire Hackett.
Ford named several areas that the automaker needs to do better under Hackett, including making decisions faster, investing capital where it can create more value and more decisively addressing underperforming parts of the company.
"I've never felt more confident in our future," Ford said. "The good news is we're starting from a very solid foundation that Mark has delivered."
Hackett said the company has been doing many things well, but he views the "fitness of the company" as something that will always need improvement. He did not directly address a question about whether the company needs to reduce the size of its work force, beyond 1,400 salaried job cuts announced last week.
He spoke highly of the cultural change that Alan Mulally ignited in eight years as CEO before Fields but said Mulally's collaborative philosophy, which came to be known as One Ford, needs to evolve.
"What it doesn't do as well is it doesn't handle when there's lots of complex strategy decisions," Hackett said.
Hackett, who spent 33 years at Steelcase, is known for being an intent listener and finding innovative solutions to important matters.
"Jim has a way of looking at knotty problems from a very different angle and very different point of view," Birgit Klohs, CEO of The Right Place, an economic development group in Grand Rapids, Mich., told the Grand Rapids Press in 2014. "He brought a lot of good ideas to the forefront."
Hackett oversaw a major reorganization at Steelcase that involved cutting the company's work force dramatically and eliminating more than half of its facilities. Among those he had to personally pink-slip was the best man at his wedding.
He met with many of the laid-off salaried workers personally, eating breakfast with them and offering them assistance with networking or benefit issues.
When Hackett left Steelcase in March 2014, he appeared to be relishing the prospect of a relatively quiet retirement. Instead, later that year, he agreed to become interim athletic director at his alma mater, the University of Michigan, a position he held for 16 months. He said he hesitated but ultimately agreed to take the job because "sometimes you do things for God and country."
At the university, Hackett made a big impact despite his short tenure and lack of athletic management experience. His biggest legacy was hiring Jim Harbaugh as the school's head football coach, a move that instantly vaulted the program back into the national conversation after a troubled seven-year stretch.