What If Ford Quit Selling Cars?

As I write this blog, two stories in The Wall Street Journal jump out at me. Ford Motor’s CEO Mark Fields is moving toward the day when selling automobiles isn’t as valuable as it is today, and Coca-Cola’s CEO James Quincey is acknowledging that selling colored sugar water may not be the future.

I suspect none of you violently disagrees with those assertions, but they’re both great examples of the challenges CEOs can face when trying to grope for the future.

Fields and Quincey are doing the right thing for the long-term value of their companies. So what? The “what” is that they’ll likely get beat up by internal and external forces, work hard to gain and maintain board support as the changes take place, and perhaps suffer at the hands of activist investors who’ll demand new management that will “fix” falling revenue. “Throw the bums out! They ruined good car and sugar water companies!”

There are many examples of companies and some industries that failed because no one apparently identified that the light at the end of the tunnel was a disruptive train! “How stupid could management be?!” the headlines shout. Well, I believe that in most of those failures, the train was correctly identified but, like a cocaine addict can’t shake the bug, the shareholders can’t shake the current-income disease. They can’t let go to move ahead. CEOs are told to “think about the future,” but guess how they’re paid?

Only a fool would change a profitable, healthy business model to one that’s unknown and potentially extremely risky. However, it takes brave souls to leave the comfort of current income to think about what will work five or 10 years out and make some bets in that direction.

As Uber flourishes and self-driving cars allow for more effective ride sharing, it’ll be interesting to see if Fields can withstand the storm. And as more people internalize the danger of drinking soda, it will be interesting to see if Quincey can keep his shareholders happy. Will they be the Reed Hastings of Netflix in 2011, or the John Sculley when he was fired from Apple in 1993?

Change happens and most people don’t like it, but we should acknowledge the brave souls who take a shot at finding the new wave.

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