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Lured by the racetrack, Stevens rises to top of the auto business

Ford vice president will be part of the five-member top tier in new management structure

Dee-Ann Durbin / AP Auto Writer

About Anne Stevens.
AGE: 57 (Born Dec. 3, 1948)
RESIDENCE: Ypsilanti.
EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in mechanical and materials engineering, Drexel University, 1980; graduate work at Rutgers University.
CAREER: Executive vice president and chief operating officer, Ford Motor Co.'s Americas division, November 2005-present; group vice president of Canada, Mexico and South America, 2003-November 2005; vice president of North American vehicle operations, 2001-2003; vice president of North American assembly operations, April 2001-August 2001; executive director of North American vehicle operations and director of manufacturing business office, 1999-2001; assistant vehicle line director, Small Car Vehicle Center in Dunton, England, 1997-1999; plant manager, Enfield, England, 1995-1997; various positions with Ford, including manager of quality services for Saline, Mich., plant and marketing specialist in the plastics division, 1990-1995; various positions with Exxon-Mobil Corp., 1980-1990.
PERSONAL: Married, two adult children.
Source: Ford Motor Co.

DEARBORN -- It was the growl of engines that first lured Anne Stevens to the auto business. When she was still a toddler, she remembers hearing the race cars start up on the dirt track at a Pennsylvania fairgrounds. She broke away from her parents, ran to the fence surrounding the track and watched in awe.

"I remember my father coming over and trying to pry me off the fence, and I'm yelling 'No! No!'" Stevens told The Associated Press in a recent interview.

Five decades later, Stevens has risen to the top of that business. She's the first female executive vice president at Ford Motor Co., where she's overseeing a major restructuring at the No. 2 U.S. automaker. Forbes consistently lists her as one of the most powerful women in business.

This week, Ford Chairman and CEO Bill Ford said Stevens will be part of a five-member team reporting directly to him under a new management structure resulting from the pending departure of Jim Padilla, president and chief operating officer.

But when she leaves her corporate office, Stevens can still be found at the racetrack.

"I just enjoy being out there with cars and people and just really getting into the relationship," said Stevens, 57. "It's part of who I always was."

As a child, Stevens built and painted model cars and raced them in an alley with the neighborhood boys. At 13, she would dress as a boy and sneak into pits at the races, where girls weren't allowed. She only agreed to a date with her future husband because he asked her to go to the Maple Grove Raceway near her hometown of Reading, Pa.

Stevens said racing appeals to her because it requires a mix of calculation, teamwork and individual daring.

"If I go in a car out on the track, the first couple of laps I take will always be slow, and that's because what I'm doing is looking at where the markers are, just analyzing the feel of the car, versus some of the people who just get in the car and put pedal to the metal. I'll do pedal to the metal, but never the first time out," Stevens said.

"I guess that's why I have the job I have. I'm the balance between analytics and guts."

It will take both to turn around Ford's struggling North American operations, which lost $1.6 billion last year as U.S. sales fell and the company's costs for health care, pensions and materials continued to rise. Sales of popular vehicles such as the Ford Mustang can't make up for lagging consumer interest in sport utility vehicles, the company's longtime cash cows. Ford's U.S. market share is now around 18 percent, down from 26 percent a decade ago, according to

Stevens has been at the center of Ford's turnaround efforts since October, when she was named to her current position. She and Mark Fields, Ford's recently appointed president for the Americas, oversaw development of the company's Way Forward plan, which calls for eliminating up to 30,000 jobs and closing 14 facilities by 2012. Ford executives also say they're trying to cut through a stifling, hierarchical corporate culture and put new emphasis on innovation.

Charles Fleetham, a Farmington Hills-based management consultant who has worked with Ford, said sales to women have traditionally been a weakness and Stevens can help change that.

"Having a woman that is capable of helping the company change and be more responsive to all potential customers is really critical to Ford's future," Fleetham said.

Stevens recently said "fear is not an option" for Ford, Fleetham added, indicating she has the tenacity to stick to the restructuring plan despite the headwinds facing the company.

"She has the capacity to help the organization through the suffering, the emotional stamina to endure it," Fleetham said.

Stevens almost didn't work in the auto industry. She wanted to be a doctor, but a nun at her high school told her girls couldn't be doctors and steered her into nursing instead.

"I was top in my class until they put me on the floor and I saw that they were wanting me to change bedpans and I quit," Stevens said.

She took a job in the engineering department of a phone company, where she got the first inkling that she might want to pursue an engineering degree. After marrying and having two children, she and her husband both decided to go back to school. They quit their jobs, moved their family to a small house in Philadelphia and worked their way through college with night jobs and co-ops. Stevens earned a degree in mechanical and material engineering in 1980.

Stevens took a job with Exxon-Mobil Corp., where she developed and marketed fuel additives and published several technical papers. Her rise up Exxon's corporate ladder may seem meteoric, she says, but it was filled with bumps, including her decision to leave a high-profile position in Texas to be with her family in New Jersey.

"I had a boss who told me that if I really wanted to reach my potential there I had to get rid of my excess baggage, and he meant my husband and kids," Stevens said. "So it wasn't clean sailing."

At Exxon she developed an interest in manufacturing quality and eventually did graduate work with W.E. Deming, an expert who revolutionized the manufacturing process at Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. Stevens met Deming because she had guts: He was teaching a course at New York University and she decided to sit in even though she wasn't enrolled.

"I didn't just crash one. I went every week," Stevens said with a laugh.

Stevens, who did a co-op at Ford in the late 1970s, eventually took a marketing job in Ford's plastic products division. Soon afterward, she became a quality manager at a Ford plant in Saline, the first of several plant jobs that culminated with her becoming the automaker's first female plant manager in Europe.

Stevens is proud of her depth of experience and the years she spent on the plant floor before she moved into an executive suite. Two years ago, she was voted into the prestigious National Academy of Engineering, something she counts as one of her highest achievements.

"I'm a gearhead. I'm not the kind of person that thinks that you go get an MBA from a top school and then expect to be a CEO," she said. "I believe technical and operating experience within your field is important. I think you can be a better business leader if you know how to put those pieces together."

She also sees herself as a role model for other women in the business. At the Saline plant, an hourly worker once told her he was glad to see that she had earned an engineering degree and was in management because he had two daughters.

"The thing that is important to me is that women see that you can create your success, whatever that success is for you," she said.

But even more important to her, she said, is bringing a different kind of management style to the workplace. She calls it "push, push, hug."

"The push has to be there. This is not an easy business, but I don't think any business today is easy, with global competition and the world as we know it," Stevens said. "But if I can bring the aspect to the business that at the end of the day, we're still human beings, and that it's OK to push but it's OK once in a while to give a hug... then I think that's important."

Joe Hinrichs, Ford's vice president of vehicle operations for North America, says he has been the recipient of some of those hugs. Stevens also has pushed him and backed him when he challenged management.

"If there is a need to have a tough conversation with an individual or group she is ready and able to have that tough conversation," Hinrichs said. "However, she also cares deeply about the individual, so she is also always looking for signs that an individual might need some help or support."

"It takes courage and support to change the business," he added. "Anne has provided that for me."
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