It's been a long, long road for Ford
But that was then. Now, solidly profitable, with a widely acclaimed line of hit products around the world, Ford is looking mightier than it has in years -- a fact that was acknowledged in a very public way this past week.
The upgrade that really mattered
For Ford insiders, Tuesday's credit upgrade by Moody's was a very big deal. The upgrade to "investment-grade" status -- Ford's second in two months -- was the last piece the company needed to reclaim the collateral it had pledged back in 2006.
Back then, Ford's then-new CEO Alan Mulally and Executive Chairman Bill Ford had gone to Wall Street with hat in hand, determined to borrow all they could to fund the remaking of the battered old automaker. They got over $23 billion, but at a steep price -- one that included pledging just about everything the company owned as collateral for the loan, as the bankers were far from sure that Ford could actually be saved.
"Everything" included Ford's factories, its real estate, and its headquarters building in Dearborn. But it also included the famous blue oval trademark itself, a particularly hard pill to swallow for Bill Ford, founder Henry's great-grandson. The collateral would be returned, the loan agreements said, once Ford has been upgraded to "investment grade" by two of the three major rating agencies -- a goal that seemed far off in those dark days.
But that goal was reached this past week, and it was a big one for those at Ford. Getting the Blue Oval out of "hock," as Bill Ford put it this past week, was an emotional moment; he took to the headquarters building's emergency public-address system to announce it to all hands as soon as he heard the news.
A long road back from the brink
The turnaround that Mulally engineered looks like simple genius now, but it was far from a sure thing when it was set in motion. Based on a plan that had been developed shortly before he arrived at Ford in 2006, the overhaul went against Detroit conventional wisdom in a number of ways, but Mulally was able to do the hard work of selling it internally and externally to make it happen.
The basic principles are deceptively simple: Ford should have just enough production capacity to meet demand, all of its products should be profitable, and it should run its far-flung global centers as a single integrated operation. Perhaps most importantly, the plan called for Ford to sell the same basic lineup of cars around the world -- and lavish each with the development funds and attention necessary to create a class leader.
It worked: Ford's sales are up, and the company has been solidly profitable since the second quarter of 2009. While the company's stock looked like a gamble during the dark days of the economic crisis, when General Motors
But there's still work to be done
While Ford's near-term survival is no longer in question, Mulally and his team still have lots of work to do. Toyota
Meanwhile, Ford continues to lose money in Europe's struggling economy. And while Ford is spending big to expand its production capacity in China, its efforts in the Middle Kingdom have been somewhat uneven to date, though hopeful signs are emerging. This is a major development: Ford is counting on China, and Asia generally, to drive significant new sales growth starting in about 2015.
But with its return to the investment-grade ranks this past week, it's clear that Ford has already come a long, long way.
While Ford is hoping that its new factories in China will drive big growth by mid-decade, it's not the only American company looking to emerging markets for big growth. Quite a few American companies have big plans in fast-growing new markets like China and Russia and the execution strategies to back it up. Motley Fool analysts have identified three big-name companies that are particularly well positioned to profit, and you can learn more right now with our new free report, "3 American Companies Set to Dominate the World." It's completely free for Fool readers, but only for a limited time -- so grab your copy now.
Fool contributor John Rosevear owns shares of Ford and General Motors. Follow him on Twitter at @jrosevear. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Ford and General Motors, as well as creating a synthetic long position in Ford. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.