Jim Farley Tries to Reinvent Ford and Catch Up to Elon Musk and Tesla

Auto experts say the electric F-150, known as the Lightning, must be a success if Ford is to thrive in the age of electric vehicles. Introducing this truck now is equivalent to “betting the company,” said William C. Ford Jr., the company’s executive chairman, who is a great-grandson of Henry Ford. “If this launch doesn’t go well, we can tarnish the entire franchise.”

The company has amassed about 200,000 reservations for the trucks, but it could still stumble. Production could be slowed by the global chip shortage or the surging costs of lithium, nickel and other raw materials crucial to batteries. The software that Ford has developed for the truck could be flawed, a problem that hampered sales of a new electric Volkswagen in 2020.

Ford and Mr. Farley do have some things going for them. Unlike many other electric cars, the F-150 Lightning is relatively affordable — it starts at $40,000. Tesla’s cheapest car is the compact Model 3 sedan, which starts at more than $48,000. The Lightning has tons of storage, including a giant front trunk, which is appealing to families and businesses with large truck fleets. And it helps that Tesla will not begin making its Cybertruck until next year.

And Ford is also already in the E.V. game with the Mustang Mach-E, an electric sport utility vehicle. It had sales of more than 27,000 in 2021, its first year on the market, and won favorable reviews.

Production of the F-150 Lightning is scheduled to start next Monday. Competing models from General Motors, Stellantis and Toyota — Ford’s main rivals in pickups — are at least a year away. Rivian, a newer manufacturer that Ford has invested in, has begun selling an electric truck but is struggling to increase production.

“If the Lightning launch goes well, we have an enormous opportunity,” Mr. Ford said.

In many ways, Mr. Farley checks most of the boxes when it comes to leading a large U.S. automaker. Like Mary T. Barra, the chief executive of G.M., whose father used to work on a Pontiac assembly line, Mr. Farley has family roots in the industry: His grandfather worked at a Ford factory. On visits to his grandfather, he would tour Ford plants and other sites important to the company’s history. As a 15-year-old, he bought a Mustang while working in California one summer and drove it home to Michigan without a license. His grandfather nicknamed him “Jimmy Car-Car.”

But like Mr. Musk, a native of South Africa who was a founder of PayPal and other companies, Mr. Farley has had a varied career and been involved in creating businesses. Born in Argentina when his father was working there as a banker, Mr. Farley, 59, also lived in Brazil and Canada when he was growing up. His career started not in the auto industry but at IBM. He spent a long stretch at Toyota. He helped the Japanese automaker overcome its reputation for making boring and economical cars by working on its fledgling Lexus luxury brand, now a powerhouse.


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