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The Many Careers Of Phil Martens At One Company

Here's how one of the most successful executives in the auto industry achieved success at a company where he once decided he'd never want to work. What he's learned, may help you.
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Phil Martens thinks back some 10 years ago. He was named the chief program engineer responsible for the Panther program at Ford, the program that produced the Lincoln Town Car and Mercury Grand Marquis. "I knew I could do the job." But he was 34. Which caused a bit of a problem. "The average age of a manager working for me was at least 20 years older than I was. These guys were like, 'Why should I take orders from you?'" Yet despite that, Martens recalls, "It worked out great." They delivered. That's not entirely surprising. Martens has an enviable track record. He joined Ford in 1987. In October 2003 he was named group vice president, Product Creation, North America, Ford Motor Company. Sitting in his automotive-model and memorabilia filled office in Dearborn, he still looks far too young to be a top automotive executive. Silicon Valley, yes. Detroit, no. Yet comparative youth notwithstanding, Martens is a man who has shown that he's capable of getting things done.

But note well: Martens admits, "You have to be willing to say, 'I don't know. Let's find out who can help us.' It's"—by which he means operations in the auto industry, but it could be applied to other undertakings—"too complicated. No one knows it all."

He stresses—and if you stop reading after this, you'll get the essence of achieving success—"It's never one person. It has to be a collective 'we.'" But he also acknowledges that leadership means making decisions, being the one who works with the "we" but who is ultimately responsible for what is undertaken.




Martens hails from Buffalo, New York. His father, who emigrated from Germany in 1952, was an engineering prof at the University of Buffalo. Not surprisingly, when Martens graduated high school, he went to engineering school at Virginia Tech. His father had told him that if he was going to pay for college, then his son was going to get an engineering degree because it would lead to a job. "There went my desire to get a BBA and a JD degree and basically make a lot of money being a lawyer," Martens quips. Being from Buffalo, he wanted to go to someplace warmer, so after college, mechanical engineering degree in hand, he got a job with what was then Eastman Kodak's chemical division in Kingsford, Tennessee, which didn't work out well, but which gave him the opportunity to learn about sales and marketing.

Opportunities and pursuing things that are different from the norm—with "norm" being defined as moving forward in a straight line, not divaricating in other directions—are fundamental to Martens's approach.

Next, it was out to (much warmer) Los Angeles, where he went to work for a small company that sold digital control systems for industrial processes. "That was a great experience because I was able to be a jack-of-all-trades." But working for a small company wasn't doing it for Martens, so he moved eastward, to Ann Arbor, to pursue an MBA at the University of Michigan. Not surprisingly, it was at that time that he attained his first association with Ford. He needed to get an internship. He couldn't get on the Ford interview sheet, but he walked into the interview room anyway. After a five-minute conversation, he was offered an internship. While this might seem as though the rest of the story would unfold directly from there, Martens recalls, "At that time I was dead set against a big company." But he had to do the internship for the degree. He did it. The 10 weeks worked out well. "I came to see this as a tremendously competitive industry. I got to see the multifaceted aspects of how difficult the industry is, and I got a real exposure to the quality of the people who were working at Ford."

But he returned to the classroom. When the MBA was in hand, he had various job offers, ranging from investment banking to brand management. And yes, from Ford. "I sat down with the five best offers and included Ford as one of the five. I force-ranked them on 15 attributes. And Ford came out dead last by a wide margin."

Let's repeat that: "And Ford came out dead last by a wide margin."

Enter, again, Professor Martens. His dad told him that he should go to work for Ford, that it was a good company and that his son wouldn't be disappointed with the decision. "That's how I made the decision. All of the metrics said 'don't go.' But it was a decision based on more than metrics."




Among other things, he recognized that given the scope of Ford—both functionally and geographically—there was opportunity: "It gave one person, if they wanted it, the opportunity to have three or four careers in a lifetime relationship with the company."

Once again that word: Opportunity. One of the things that Martens says has been a driver to his career—or careers, as it has turned out—is that what's most important is pursuing experiences, not job titles. He says that while people tend to want to get a better job title and the perks that go with that, his approach has been one of learning new things, things which broaden his capabilities. Rather than taking the incremental, linear approach, he's quested after different opportunities, different experiences.

So, when he joined Ford as an employee, he started in product planning. A year later, he entered a rotational program that put him in Purchasing, Finance, Manufacturing, and Engineering. "I even pushed a broom on the floor at Wixom," he recalls. "I worked on the line. I worked for buyers. I worked in finance. I did fuel tank design and release engineering. I saw a lot of different elements of the company." And he worked at seeing even more. He moved into development engineering in Powertrain, working on launching the Modular V8 in the 1991 Lincoln Town Car.

"I learned a lot about systems engineering and interrelationships," he says. That is another lesson that can be learned from Martens. He is sensitive to systems issues, not only when it comes to things like engines ("If you work on the powertrain as a system, it affects a lot of stuff in the vehicle; you can't separate a vehicle from the powertrain."), but in terms of organizational structures, as well. That is, let's fast forward several years to 1999 (past: manager of small car vehicle development. . . chief program engineer in Ford's Large and Luxury Car Vehicle Center. . . chief engineer Vehicle/Chassis Engineering, Small and Medium Car Vehicle Center-Europe), when he joined Mazda Motor Corp. in Japan as managing director, Product Planning, Design and Product Development, a job that he describes—with understatement—as "a stretch assignment." He originally turned it down. Then he thought better of it.

He recalls, "We were dealing with a turnaround situation at the time. It was a risky business. It was never about failing." He was going to work to make sure that it succeeded—not only from the standpoint of Mazda, but also for Phil Martens: "I signed on knowing that it was going to be either up or out. If I succeeded, I'd be viewed in a different light in the industry—as a global player, not just as a guy from Ford who went over there for a job."

What he helped do at Mazda is to create and codify a system—the Mazda Product Development System. A year after he was there, there was a re-org, putting the right people in the right places. They created a platform-based organization and codified a cycle plan for four new platforms and five new powertrains. This meant, in effect, that within 30 months there would be near 100% change in Mazda's product offerings. (Among the products was the Mazda6, which plays very big in the global Ford transformation: see box, "Three's A Company".) "It was we," Martens says, adding, "and the power behind that was huge."

From Hiroshima, Martens moved back to Dearborn in 2002. He recalls that when he arrived, he spent two weeks talking with people in the company. And what he learned disturbed him. He even lost sleep over it. What he discovered was that there were a whole lot of people who were interested in themselves, in the "I," not the "We." And if there was one thing that he was absolutely convinced of, no one can do anything alone. Yet he also knows that someone must ultimately make a decision: "Consensus is important, but there must be someone at the end who must make the tough decisions."




He thought about how the organization was and what it needed to be. He diagrammed it on a piece of paper, then shared it with Nick Scheele (president of Ford) and Jim Padilla (now COO, Ford and chairman, Automotive Operations). It was a simple approach because, he says, "If you make things too complicated, then you get into discussions about this node or that. I simply said, 'Here's where we have to go. I don't have all the answers. Do you support this?'" They did, and the organizational transformation commenced.

First, Martens was vice president of Product Creation, North America (which is a change from "Product Development"), then, in October, 2003, group vice president, Product Creation, North America. In this position he oversees the design, engineering and development of all Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury cars and light trucks sold in North America, and he also leads the process as it relates to Advanced Manufacturing Engineering, Manufacturing Engineering, and Product and Business Strategy. In effect, he translated back to Dearborn what he'd learned in Japan—and in all of the other functions he'd served in at Ford since 1987.

Although the transformation at Ford is a work-in-process, Martens is confident that it is moving in the right direction. "We have put in place a cycle planning process. Going out, we have what I consider the most complete and comprehensive product plan I've ever seen. We have our issues. But when you look at the cadence of products, I think it is as well balanced as its ever been." He admits, "I know that through '08 the cycle plan is complete. We've never had that stability in planning." That stability, paired with continuing success in trucks (starting with the F-Series in '03) and renewed success in cars (with great hopes pinned on such products as the Five Hundred and the Mustang), should make Ford a solid competitor in the market. As he looks at the truck portfolio paired with the forthcoming car offerings, Martens says, with pride, "That's an equation no one in the world can match."