Brown’s retirement may not come as a surprise, but having headed up Ford’s purchasing function through such a difficult period in the company’s history, it’s perhaps not exaggerating to say that this announcement will raise eyebrows well beyond the automotive world.
In fact, Brown is one of the most recognised names in the profession, largely thanks to his activities in developing supplier relations at Ford, at a time when it was drastically lagging behind rivals.
Last year I caught up with Bryce Hoffman, author of American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company and he was adamant that the partnership between Brown and CEO Mulally led a revolution in the company. You can read the full interview here.
Hoffman described to me the scenario when Brown joined the function in 2008:
“Before turning around, Ford was rated as one of the worst auto manufacturers to do business with. Whereas Toyota focused on long-term relationships, Ford pitted suppliers against each other.
When Tony Brown started he was tasked with coming up with a new supplier strategy. He took a page out of Toyota’s book and focused on long-term relationships. His approach was to show key suppliers future product plans and encouraged them to innovate. But beyond that, what Tony did was to align these activities with the business strategy. The team began reducing thousands of suppliers to 750.”
Of course, what Brown is best recognised for is having steered the purchasing function and the new approach through a traumatic period for the sector.
Hoffman noted that this adversity provided the setting for Brown’s finest hour.
“Brown created an internal task force. The US supply base was grossly over capacitated before the crisis, so there was a sudden drop-off in sales, which created something of a capacity crisis. Many suppliers did not survive.
What that meant for Tony Brown was an urgency to push those alignment efforts as they became more critical to the operational effectiveness of Ford in general. I’ve seen the task force room – it looks like the NASA control base – there are dashboards with every supplier, percentages of supplier risk, teams with members from all different functions.
Where Brown was really successful was in realizing that Ford could not do it by itself – he reached out and proposed working together with competitors to figure out which suppliers were critical and how to act. Several balked at this, but the Japanese companies already had the most collaborative approach and they would talk regularly. That opened a degree of inter-company intelligence that was key.”
Automotive may be a particularly sharp example of procurement coming to the fore in a period of industry crisis, but doubtless there are lessons here for CPOs and aspiring talent alike. Brown’s achievements aren’t remarkable for their novelty or innovation, instead they marked patience and clear-thinking and, crucially, collaboration. These traits helped his function become a crucial facet to the CEO’s plan to turn the company around.
Chiefs present and future would perhaps do well to look a little deeper at what drove this success and what bearing it has for them.