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'Survivor guilt' for departing Ford chief
Bill Osborne leaves five-year future blueprint as his Ford Australia legacy
26 Aug 2008
FORD Australia could have a new president by as early as next week following the shock announcement by Bill Osborne that he is leaving the automotive industry to become the CEO of a national security company in the United States.
Mr Osborne rocked the company with his resignation last Friday, the same day that Ford announced it is cutting back production by 23 per cent and laying off up to 350 employees in Australia.
Yesterday, Mr Osborne told GoAuto he was suffering “a bit of survivor guilt, to be honest” by leaving Ford at such a troubled time.
But he said he had been offered a dream job that he thought would only come along later in his career.
“It’s unfortunate it comes at a time of great challenges in the industry, but it is no way related to those challenges. It’s strictly a personal decision,” he told the media on Friday.
After a few more days of reflection, though, Mr Osborne is clearly experiencing the reality of walking away from long-standing relationships to an exciting new position.
“I love Ford Motor Company, I love Australia and I love the business, so it is still a tough decision,” he said yesterday.
“It doesn’t reflect any dissatisfaction whatsoever with Ford, with Australia or the industry. I have been with this industry 32 years, I have seen tough times before. If it was tough times (that led to leaving), I would have left a long time ago.
“I feel guilt. I feel bad about the fact that I am leaving my comrades, people that I care for dearly, people that I have been battling in the trenches with trying to take Ford to the top of the industry.
“Honestly, I feel that I am abandoning my closest friends, so it is actually a tough decision, even given how great an opportunity it is. I should be enjoying myself, but I actually feel terrible.
“It is just personal. There are a lot of people who I have bonded with here and in Ford around the world and I feel on some levels that I’m abandoning people that I love, that I’m very close to.” Less than seven months in the job in Australia, Mr Osborne said that he had been negotiating his new position for “several months” and advised management of his decision last week, leaving little time to find another replacement so soon after his predecessor, Tom Gorman, also quit suddenly.
However, he said on Friday that a number of candidates have already been identified.
“I’ve just had a discussion with my boss and my understanding is that he hopes to have someone identified over the course of the next two weeks.
“I don't intend on hanging around for months and months. This team needs to get on with new leadership and be able to execute [plans for the future] without me in their way, so as soon as we can put together a good transition plan I will step aside.” Mr Osborne said that one of the most notable achievements of his brief tenure in Australia was changing the company’s business direction and introducing a new five-year plan that he regards as the blueprint for the company’s future.
“I think we’ve put together an excellent business plan to put the company on sound footing in the next few years,” Mr Osborne told a hastily-convened press briefing.
“Obviously there are elements of the plan that we haven’t been able to reveal to you, but since I’ve come on board we have launched and got approval for a different business plan for Ford Australia and I think you will see that plan come to fruition over the next four to five years.
“It became clear that there were some things happening in the market that all of you have noted, that the large car segment has been declining, that there’s changes in the market around consumer preferences, fuel prices have risen dramatically.
“In that kind of volatile environment it was very important that we put together a plan that responded to those kinds of changes and I think the plan we have in place will provide a strong market response to the changing conditions we see in the automotive sector in Australia.
“We have to execute the plan. The execution is going to be around making sure we keep an eye on our costs – we need to be one of the lowest-cost producers in the region.
“We’re now positioning ourselves to be a regional, if not global, player in the industry and so we have to set our sights, in terms of quality and our costs, on the best in the industry. We have to match the lowest-cost producers and the highest-quality producers in the industry. We’re on a journey to achieve that.” Mr Osborne said that exports are a big part of the plan, but mentioned only the forthcoming Focus, not Falcon or Territory.
Other highlights of his reign, he said, have been putting Ford Australia “on the road to a better, more transparent relationship with its dealers” and the launch of the FG Falcon, for which he takes no credit.
Although Mr Osborne said on Friday that he was unable to identify his new publicly-listed employer, or even the industry, he revealed yesterday that it is involved in what the Americans call ‘homeland security’.
His appointment is scheduled to be announced in the US on Thursday.
“This is an opportunity I have been preparing for the whole of my career and frankly it’s an opportunity I thought would come later in my career. It was always my object to retire from the Ford Motor Company and then seek an opportunity as the CEO of an independent company. It just happens that such an opportunity has come my way a lot earlier than I projected and I felt I had to take it now.
“I’m quite saddened to be leaving Ford Australia. I believe we’ve got a good strong team in place and a plan to be successful in the future. Quite frankly, the decision was just based on the fact that it’s a wonderful opportunity that supports a lifelong dream I’ve had to be the CEO of an independent company.
“I can’t tell you how difficult this decision is because this is a fantastic company and a fantastic team. I retain 100 per cent confidence in Ford Australia. The difficulties that are faced by Ford Australia are being faced by every auto manufacturer. They’re not endemic to Ford they’re endemic to how difficult this particular business is at this particular time.
“I wouldn’t have considered leaving the company if not for this specific, unique opportunity. Even with the opportunity to realise a lifelong career dream, it’s been a very difficult decision and even today I can’t tell you that I’m not saddened. I am.
“I’ve worked at Chrysler as well as General Motors. That’s one of the reasons why I’m saddened because I now work for one of the best automotive companies in the world – and I can say that with having a frame of reference from working with a couple of other organisations.”
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