Profile: The British route master at Ford: Alex Trotman: Phil Reeves meets the canny Scot who is taking over the controls of the US car giant

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The Independent Online
ALEX TROTMAN has six trophies in his office, just to keep his head out of the clouds. They are ornaments from different car bonnets, but they have one common feature: their manufacturers have all gone out of business. 'They are there to remind me the world does not owe us a living,' he says.

In one week, Trotman will take over as chairman and chief executive of the giant Ford Motor Company. His is one of the most sought-after and powerful jobs in corporate America, giving him mastery over a dominion that includes dollars 200bn (pounds 134bn) assets, 325,000 employees, and plants in 30 countries. He is the fourth non-Ford in the job, and the first British-born executive to attempt to fill Henry Ford's shoes.

At first sight, Trotman, a youthful-looking 60, has no need for those gloomy office mementoes. At the last count, five of the 10 best-selling vehicles in America were Ford-made. Although it cost an estimated dollars 6bn, Ford says the Mondeo - its 'world car' - is breaking records in Europe, where some 300,000 have been sold.

But the road ahead is littered with hazards. The corporation is still battling against Japanese competition, smog-reducing laws that require it to produce a quota of electric cars by 1998, and losses in an overcrowded European market. It will require every bit of Trotman's Scottish canniness to negotiate a safe passage.

This week he was in California, showing off the weapon that may just have helped him to land the job. For it was Trotman who was responsible for a new Mustang, which goes on sale in two months' time.

After nearly 30 years, Ford had been planning to kill off this American icon. Trotman said it must be saved, insisting only that it have side air scoops and triple tail lights, like the 1964 original. And it must have a chrome horse emblem on the bonnet.

The result is, he told an audience of Californian Mustang collectors in his Scottish burr, 'truly world class'. More important, it cost only dollars 700m to develop - a definite gold star for him.

Trotman was born in Isleworth, Middlesex, on 22 July 1933, but the family moved to his mother's parents in Edinburgh when he was seven to escape the Blitz. His father worked as a carpet layer and upholsterer. The home was no different from those of other working- class families struggling to make ends meet. It was, he says, 'just a very tight family with incredible loyalty'.

Trotman won a scholarship to Boroughmuir, an Edinburgh school where discipline was drilled home with the 'tawse', a fearsome belt. He left with 'highers' results good enough to have assured him a place at Edinburgh University.

However, his parents could not afford it. 'There wasn't a prayer. I was the first member of my family to go to school beyond the age of 14,' he said. 'Even to go to school until I was 18 was a huge leap, and a big economic burden for my family.' So instead, he began a four-year commission with the RAF as a flying officer and navigator.

Trotman, a stocky man whose straight-backed gait and clipped moustache gives him a military air, admits that he considered staying on in the RAF. But most of his contemporaries were only serving four-year terms, so in 1955 he emerged into civvie street.

When he spotted an ad in a local paper for management trainees at Ford in Dagenham, he did not ponder over it for long. 'It was the first ad that I applied for and the first job that I got. I was looking for a pay cheque, not a career in the auto business.' The pay was pounds 576 a year.

He got off to a flying start. After stints as a 'progress chaser' (chasing up parts from suppliers) and in product planning, he landed the job that ensured he was earmarked for a top company position: chief product analyst for a new car codenamed Archbishop.

This was the Cortina, a car that became as much a part of the furniture of Britain's booming 1960s as Tupperware and Carnaby Street. It was Ford of Britain's best-selling product for almost a decade. By the age of 34, Trotman was executive director of car product planning for Ford of Europe, and was intent on going higher.

He then made a move which surprised, and even appalled, some of his colleagues. To conquer Ford, to make it to the pinnacle, he knew he had to get to the heart of the corporation - its Michigan headquarters in the United States. Although he was in a high position for one so young, he told the company that he wanted a transfer.

Impossible, came back the reply. Transfers from an international division to the US were frowned upon. In the end, demonstrating a self-confidence and ambition that bordered on arrogance, he threatened to quit. Ford relented, but it was only prepared to give him a far more junior post - that of an administrative assistant in car planning. It was like going from manager to office clerk. Trotman even had to buy his own air tickets.

There was another reason for getting out of Britain. By now, Trotman was earning a big salary, and resented paying the high levels of income tax. 'The tax on the marginal pound was huge,' he recalls, still with a note of disgust.

But the move quickly paid off. Within a year, he was named manager of Lincoln Mercury's product planning department. Thereafter his progress was rapid: president of Ford Asia-Pacific, president of Ford of Europe, chairman of Ford of Europe, executive vice-president for North American Automotive Operations, president and chief operating officer of the Ford Automotive Group.

Going from there to the chief executive's office was by no means a foregone conclusion. At first, Allan Gilmour, a vice-chairman with a strong career in finance, was the favourite. But Trotman's track record on the product side and his international background finally weighed in his favour, and prompted a flurry of satisfied hand-rubbing from Ford workers, who thought they were getting a 'car man' as opposed to an accounts- obsessed 'bean counter'.

Trotman, who is in fact a walking encyclopaedia of Ford's costs and profits, has little time for this sentiment. 'It implies I go around kicking tyres and bending metal and inventing new cars. But that's a long way from an accurate reflection of what we all do for a living.'

He has already established a reputation for tearing down the management/shopfloor barriers that used to characterise the motor industry. He has closed executive dining rooms and banned the blue paper used by top managers to distinguish their memos from everyone else's.

His dislike of elitism is rooted in his family life. Two or three times a year, he flies to Scotland where he meets his brother, a bus driver in Edinburgh. 'We get on like a house on fire. I see him two or three times a year. We have a pint and fish and chips, and watch the football (he is an avid Hearts fan) . . . We are good brothers and he enjoys my success - I think.'

Despite his considerable wealth, Trotman is a quiet man, who puts work and family first. The day begins at 5.15am with a 45-minute session on the walking machine, before scouring the newspapers. It ends whenever the papers, faxes and phone calls stop piling up. Trotman does not use a chauffeur, preferring to drive himself.

His pleasures are equally modest: fishing and log-splitting at his cabin in northern Ontario, one of his four homes; gardening and mending old clocks at his house in Michigan; walking the Yorkshire moors. He does not drink much, although he can wax lyrical on the merits of British brews (even Scottish ones).

Ask him a question, and he will gaze at you with all the intense concentration of a mechanic peering into a spluttering engine. He seems to like questions: it was he who introduced the idea of a live TV company link-up, in which workers from Ford plants get the chance to bombard him with questions in a phone-in every three months. He reckons he answers about 80 per cent on the spot, with the rest coming quickly by personal memo.

Unsurprisingly, his collection of replies covers most of the obvious chinks in Ford's armour - the future of the loss-making Jaguar subsidiary ('in the black in three or four years') or Ford's losses in Europe (dollars 855m last year). Although Trotman sees the main opportunity for growth in the Asian Pacific market, he is adamant that Ford will continue to fight hard in the crowded European market.

'We are going through tough times,' he admits, 'but taking our foot off the pedal in Europe is furthest from our thoughts.'

Brave words. But driving requires more than just a foot on the pedal. It remains to be seen whether Trotman, the quiet Scottish American, also knows how to point the giant Ford juggernaut in the right direction.

(Photograph omitted)

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