Jac Nasser Is Car Crazy More import than insider, Nasser doesn't do things the way they've always been done in Detroit. That's why he's the perfect guy to lead Ford into the next century.
By Sue Zesiger

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Jacques Nasser's green eyes get that sheet-metal glint as he flogs a prototype of the next-generation Mustang Cobra through the curves on Ford's ride-and-handling test track. "It was about time we put IRS [independent rear suspension] in a Mustang, don't you think?" twangs Nasser in his Australian drawl. "Feel the difference?" We power around several more laps, tires screeching, V-8 rumbling, Nasser's hands (and grin) steady, the speedometer tipped over to 90 miles per hour.

People who know the 50-year-old Nasser, Ford's automotive operations president and heir apparent to CEO Alex Trotman, would say that 90 miles per hour sounds unusually slow. Jac, as he's called, moves fast and often: He's worked at Ford for 30 years, but has spent fewer than six of them in Detroit. The rest of the time he has held posts in Australia, Thailand, the Philippines, Venezuela, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and Europe, working his way quickly up Ford's food chain by proving himself astute in finance (he has a degree in international business), in management, and in making cars people want. At a time when Ford is reaching to be more global than ever, Nasser represents the consummate insider-outsider.

His background also makes him one of that rare breed in Detroit: an import--and therefore an unusual candidate to run an American icon. In fact, he's as close to zero percent American as you can get. Born in a mountain village in Lebanon and raised in Australia from the age of 4, he speaks five languages, favors Savile Row suits, collects Swiss watches and European cars (a '64 Jaguar Mk II and a '73 Jag E-Type grace his garage), loves opera, and holds an Australian passport.

But Nasser has one distinctly American characteristic, other than his obsession with cars: a highly entrepreneurial, impatient, can-do mentality. Before Jac, decisions at Ford were reached as slowly as seasons change; Jac stormed in like El Nino. "He's got a passion for creating a great company, but [one that's] less safe," says Jim Schroer, executive director of marketing and brand management. "It's like that scene in A Few Good Men where Tom Cruise asks Jack Nicholson for the truth, and Nicholson screams back, 'You can't handle the truth!' Well, Jac wants the truth so he can make smarter decisons."

Nasser is tireless, as his Australian wife of 28 years, Jennifer, and his four children can probably attest. He sleeps only four to five hours a night and uses holidays and Sundays to travel abroad to avoid losing workdays. Co-workers paint a picture of a man who has the gregariousness of a politician, the energy of a teenager, the team-building savvy of an NBA coach, and the predatory instincts of a general. "He's like Chinese water torture," Ford spokeswoman Judith Muhlberg explains with pride. "If he doesn't get the answer he wants, he just keeps coming back."

More than anything, Jac Nasser is determined to make people truly excited again about buying Fords. He wants to electrify every brand, satisfy every customer, make every vehicle fun to drive--in short, do nothing less than put Ford on top. Already this year, Car and Driver magazine has run three consecutive covers showing future Fords: the seductive Lincoln LS (for luxury sports) sedan; the soon-to-be reborn Thunderbird, a sexy two-seater that recalls its storied youth; and the supercharged Jaguar XKR. Say what you will, Jac Nasser generates buzz.

But will Ford need the kind of leadership that Nasser provides? "Nasser's failures aren't evident yet," says David Cole, director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan. "But everything I see indicates that Jac Nasser is doing a lot of right things." Bob Lutz, Chrysler's soon-to-be-retired vice chairman, states it more firmly. "Jac used to work for me [at Ford], so I know him for what he is--an exciting and brilliant automotive executive and unconventional thinker. They'd be crazy not to give him the top job."

Back in his model-car-lined office, Nasser discusses how to turn a fragmented, sluggish corporate culture into a cohesive, lithe one. "It's important to stay quick and nimble, and create a spirit of entrepreneurship throughout the company," says Nasser, speaking deliberately but keeping an eye on one of his beloved watches.

The first step is to impart a sense of ownership to employees, which he believes starts with the financial basics. Since he took the No. 2 job in November 1996, he has weekly taught groups of employees--a total of 50,000 so far--the meaning of shareholder value, price/earnings ratios, and other business fundamentals. In lecture halls, offices, and factories around the world, Nasser spends hours with the crowds, poring over the flip charts he likes to bring and taking questions from the floor.

Some people still refer to his rough side--which he seems to have learned to control on his way up--but most of them are former employees. "I can be impatient," Nasser admits. "And probably unrelenting and intense. I have high personal standards, and I set the same standards for my team."

Even competitors point to his leadership strength. "Jac Nasser's a very charismatic leader with lots of ideas and energy," says Victor H. Doolan, president of BMW North America. "He has to avoid diluting Ford's brands--but I suspect he understands that."

The place Nasser feels most at home is Ford's creative core, the Product Development Center. His second-floor office there is within striking distance of ten design studios--and he strikes often. "Designers just weren't used to working late at night and having the president walk up behind them, look over their shoulder, and say, 'What about moving that bumper down a bit?' " says one co-worker.

So, not surprisingly, the Product Design Center is exactly where we head after I finish torturing Nasser with questions at the conference table in his office. One of my queries, of course, concerned how he felt about the Daimler-Chrysler deal. "I'd have to say in some ways it's an industrial triumph; yet it's sad. We all say we're global, but it is the passing of an American essence," Nasser says with some emotion. Finally, looking antsy, he thumps the table, announcing, "So, let's go look at some design work," like a kid who expects a treat after finishing his homework.

"Ever touched clay?" asks Nasser, handing me a scraping tool so that I can make my mark on the "grille" of an unnamed compact sport utility in the advanced-vehicle studio. All around us in the light-drenched space, industrial artists mingle with computer programmers, and small-scale models crouch next to full-sized concepts. "You're seeing an incredible fusion of technology, craftsmanship, passion, and business skills all going into the product," he explains.

I ask Nasser what the future of the passenger car is. "We're going to see SUV-type vehicles on car platforms--vehicles that are somewhere between an SUV, a minivan, and a station wagon. And vehicles that are somewhere between an SUV and a pickup truck," he says. "It's going to be difficult to make the extremely sharp distinction [we make today] between cars and trucks--there will be a blurring." Evidence of such genetic mutations are parked all around me, many quite diminutive. (I promised Ford I wouldn't go into specifics, but picture sawing a pickup truck, a sport utility, a sedan, and a minivan into segments, then interchanging the parts to create various new species--say, a beast with a sport utility's roomy interior, a pickup's handy bed, and a sedan's high engine efficiency. Ford says all of its SUVs will pass low-emission vehicle [LEV] requirements by model year 1999.)

As we stroll through a truck studio redolent of gasoline and clay ("the smell is incredible, isn't it?" he asks), janitors and designers, assistants and technicians all say, "Hi, Jac!" He returns each salutation and remembers every name. To our right, I glimpse the competition--a Chevy Suburban--next to an altogether taller, prouder SUV the height of a Ford Expedition but with the added length of the Suburban. "That's for people who want a real working vehicle, not a station wagon," Nasser says, then hurries me along.

It was in such a laboratory in Europe that one of Nasser's pet projects, the highly praised sporty three-door called the Ka, was born two years ago. Says CEO Trotman, a man not usually exuberant about individual car models: "I love the Ka. It has attracted a lot of people who never bought a Ford before." It was too costly to reengineer the tiny car for U.S. safety standards--a great disappointment to Nasser--but with it, Nasser proved Ford could put out a new vehicle in 24 months. Today that is Nasser's timeline for every new project.

About a year ago Nasser launched a hands-on project of a different sort. Each Friday afternoon, he drafts and sends out a "personal" E-mail to 89,000 Ford employees worldwide. His electronic sermons/pep talks, called "Let's Chat," became an instant success. Within each note--often several screens long--Nasser shares the highlights and insights of his week, good news, bad news, and the occasional employee challenge. It's easy to imagine that employees, reading snippets from investor meetings or conversations with "Alex," as Nasser refers to the CEO, feel immediately part of the inner circle. And because no one edits him, checks his math, or censors the content, the just-between-you-and-me tone is striking. If Ford is a religion, then Nasser is the head preacher.

Last month, right after the Daimler-Chrysler merger was announced, he sent out this missive: "We are in a commercial war, and winning is the only victory. Winning requires the commitment of all our hearts and minds, because this race will only be won by the passionate and the swift.... With a focus on quality, cost and speed and a passion for customer satisfaction and shareholder value, Jac."

Hundreds of workers from around the world respond to his E-mails every month; Nasser reads each one and assigns a member of his team to answer it personally. Some employees want to know more detail about future plans, others offer pats on the back--after news of his record $3 million bonus broke in April, Nasser received scores of "congratulations, you deserve it" notes. Most write from the heart: "I just wanted to let you know how much your weekly letters mean to me. Being a supervisor on the floor of an assembly plant ... the feedback I receive from you is better than any other method I have encountered."

Nasser is a man who attracts nicknames: Jac the Knife (he's cut a lot of jobs over the years) and Black Jac (for his keen ability to keep his numbers north of red), to name a couple. But more than maverick management tactics and financial stunts, Nasser's best skill is his ability to make every person he interacts with feel important. The suppliers feel they are central to his vision for the future. The finance guys know that he's one of them. The designers see that Nasser's heart is in the details. The factory workers see a man dedicated to rewarding their efforts. He is, in fact, a Jac-of-all-trades.

And yet, given the depth of his ambition, he has a ways to go. Ford is still No. 2 behind GM in market share. There are billions more to cut from costs, mostly in the product-development area; his vast team is scrambling to create a vehicle lineup that uses fewer platforms but offers more variety by way of standout designs. And Ford is still a truck company: Last year the company derived the lion's share of its profits from vehicles like the F-Series pickup and the Ford Expedition/Lincoln Navigator sport utilities. While he fights to reinvigorate the passenger-car market, Nasser also needs to find ways to hold market share on trucks as he watches the Japanese build better and better versions.

Back at the track, Nasser brakes a little early going into one corner, and then works the next several laps to get it right. He does. This is a focused man, a guy who won't quit--won't sleep, probably--until Ford is on top, and he's got a strong team willing to toil alongside him. And why shouldn't they? He's giving them reasons to be excited about the future.

As we finish our rounds in the rocketlike Cobra, the sun is high. We climb out over the roll cage, and I turn to a windblown Nasser and say, "It doesn't get much better than this, huh?" He looks at me with surprise, and I realize that for a man who's trying to invent hybrid vehicles, reinvent the passenger car, hold market share on trucks, cut costs, and become automotive No. 1, being satisfied is not possible. For that reason alone, he just may succeed.