Thai-Tang: From the Mustang to the C-suite
DETROIT — Hau Thai-Tang spent the final days of his nearly 35-year career at Ford Motor Co. in the same place where he got his first big break: Flat Rock Assembly Plant.
The automaker organized a sendoff for its chief industrial platforms officer, who announced his retirement in July, with workers building the Mustang sports car. Thai-Tang, 57, rose to prominence within Ford after becoming chief engineer of the fifth-generation Mustang that went into production in late 2004.
“It was a nice close-the-circle moment for me,” Thai-Tang told Automotive News in his last interview before retirement. “I’m proud of the 2005 Mustang, but the current one is better, and the one we’re going to launch is even better. It was a good reminder: The contributions you have on products, to the business results, the input you have on our work processes, all of those things are point-in-time; they’re going to change. The only true sustainable legacy you’ll have as a leader is your impact on people. That’s been the nicest thing for me is to hear from all the employees I’ve had a chance to work with.”
Thai-Tang, a Vietnamese immigrant raised in New York, joined Ford in 1988 out of college. He had a number of high-profile product development and purchasing roles that included stints in Germany and South America. Most recently, he helped spearhead development of the Bronco, Maverick and Mustang Mach-E while also working as Ford’s top supplier liaison.
He said the decision to retire was his own.
“Serving a company the size of Ford at the officer level is demanding; it’s an all-consuming job,” he said.
“It’s never easy in our business to decide when is a good time to go because of the nature of each product. [CEO Jim Farley] and I talked about what’s the right timing given the transition that’s happening and for me, coming off the heels of all the product launches we’ve rolled out over the last 18, 24 months starting with F-150, it just felt like the right time.”
Thai-Tang said he has full confidence in Farley and his Ford+ strategy to split the business into separate units focused on electric and internal combustion vehicles, as well as on commercial products and software services.
“It’s absolutely the right plan,” he said. “He’s relentless in terms of his sense of urgency and his expectations for all of the teams. I’m excited about the future and where we’re headed.”
Thai-Tang, who was selected as a 2018 Automotive News All-Star for his work to keep F-Series production going after a fire at a key supplier, has faced a bumpy road the past few years through the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent microchip shortage.
“The last 24 months have been sort of one crisis after another,” he said. “It’s not just Ford or automotive, it’s across industries.”
Ford was particularly hard-hit, and Farley admitted the company ordered too few chips after anticipating demand to recover more slowly after the pandemic than it did.
The highly anticipated launch of the Bronco SUV in 2021 was marred by quality issues with roof supplier Webasto. And last month, Ford warned that inflation-related supplier costs during the third quarter would run about $1 billion higher than it had expected as unfinished vehicles piled up on holding lots awaiting parts.
Thai-Tang said Ford continues to tweak its processes to ensure shortages of chips and other critical parts don’t happen again.
“This is a very complex, multifaceted problem,” he said. “One of the things we’re doing is going through and saying, what other commodities have the same risk profile [as chips] — high capital intensity, global, cross-industry demand and long lead times — and what have we learned from the chip crisis to learn to manage those commodities?” he said. “All that work is underway.”
Ford is in the midst of revamping its supply chain management system following Thai-Tang’s departure.
The automaker last month said CFO John Lawler temporarily will oversee a makeover of Ford’s global supply chain operations during the search for a permanent chief.
Thai-Tang said to be successful, the next executive should focus on cultivating strong relationships and spend more time assessing what it can and can’t do in-house.
“Really look at our sourcing approach, how many suppliers we work with and who are those long-term strategic partners,” he said. “For the long tail of the suppliers we do business with that are not as strategic, how do we start to rationalize and restructure some of that so that we reduce the work intensity, allow all our partners to have really good scale and eliminate some of the quality and execution risk.”
Thai-Tang’s family was among the last to flee Vietnam two days before the fall of Saigon in 1975.
His mother worked for Chase Manhattan Bank, which made arrangements to evacuate the families of some of its employees. He has said in interviews that he still remembers his family’s suitcases sitting by the door of their home as they waited for their secret cue to head to the airport: the song “White Christmas” played on a particular radio station.
Working on the 2005 Mustang was a “dream come true,” he told talk show host Charlie Rose in a 2005 interview, because growing up, his aspirations were simply to own a car.
“I feel so fortunate,” Thai-Tang told Automotive News last week.
“I have nothing but gratitude to Ford, Bill Ford, Jim and all the other wonderful leaders I’ve worked with in terms of being able to learn, grow, develop, contribute and have an impact on products customers love. It’s been a wonderful, wonderful journey.”
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