What Mr. Fields meant to say, and why

On Thursday, the entire Automotive News staff here in Detroit watched Ford CEO Mark Fields grapple live on CNN with Donald Trump’s latest round of attacks on Ford’s investment plans for Mexico.

This kind of interview on a national network can often erode into a no-win minefield for a CEO like Fields, who is dealing with Canadian labor talks, restless shareholders and the industry’s strategic changes. Some of the questions from CNN’s Poppy Harlow were either naive or ill-informed, and Fields had to stay in defense mode for much of the interview.

Still, I wish he answered some of the questions differently.

He started out just fine early in the segment, noting Ford’s commitment to the U.S. economy with the creation of 28,000 new jobs over the last five years. He used all the right numbers.

But then he could have segued into unveiling which new product(s) will be going into the Wayne, Mich., assembly plant, which is losing the Focus and C-Max small cars to the new Ford plant in Mexico. Such an announcement would have been a tangible answer to Trump’s attacks — and it might have changed the story of the day.

The next question was, “Why are you creating the jobs in Mexico?”

I wish his answer went something like this: “Ford can’t make small cars profitably in the U.S., and nobody else in the industry can, either. So given that we have a fiduciary responsibility to our many U.S. shareholders, we think it’s best to locate these operations in Mexico to maintain the product line’s profitability.”

Later in the interview, Harlow brought up how Trump’s protectionist rhetoric sells well among working-class voters in Ohio. I have no clue why Fields didn’t say this:

“Poppy, it’s interesting that you brought up Ohio. Mr. Trump doesn’t seem to remember that we actually moved a medium-duty truck assembly line last year away from Mexico to Avon Lake, Ohio, creating or preserving hundreds of Ohio jobs.”

Then, he could have taken the offensive:

“Poppy, we simply don’t understand why Mr. Trump is obsessed with our investment plans for Mexico … The reality is that several of our competitors have been actively investing in Mexico and moving more operations there for many years, including two competitors that required U.S. taxpayer bailouts just seven years ago. Yet Ford Motor Co. is the only one that gets singled out by Mr. Trump.

“We are happy to have a dialog with all our stakeholders and public policy makers about investing in Mexico, but we resent Mr. Trump’s attacks on our company.”

I’m a journalist and not a highly paid media spin doctor. But for Ford’s best interests, I wish Fields would take on Trump’s protectionist agenda and get more forceful when he has a national platform like this to defend the industry’s side of the story.

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