When the University of Michigan needed to overhaul its athletic department in 2014, it turned to Jim Hackett, a man with next to no experience in college athletics.
Mr. Hackett, who was named the chief executive of Ford Motor on Monday, had played center for the football team in 1977 under the renowned coach Bo Schembechler, but had spent most of his adult life as an executive at Steelcase, an office furniture company. When he took the job at Michigan, the school’s flagship football program was struggling.
But in his brief term as his alma mater’s interim athletic director, he moved quickly to fire the team’s coach, Brady Hoke, and to recruit a big-name replacement: Jim Harbaugh, who had been the coach of the N.F.L.’s San Francisco 49ers and was once a star Michigan quarterback. Two years later, the program had risen again to national prominence, and Mr. Hackett was credited with helping to secure a lucrative apparel deal with Nike.
“He stepped up at a challenging time in Michigan’s athletic history and our football program’s history,” Mark Schlissel, the university’s president, said in 2015, according to MLive. “And his performance as interim AD has been absolutely stellar in every regard. Jim just doesn’t do the right things, he does the right things the right way.”
His stint at Michigan, while brief, offered the kind of turnaround story that Ford sorely needs. Under the prior executive, Mark Fields, the company’s shares dropped 40 percent in three years.
Mr. Hackett, 62, had been overseeing the Ford subsidiary that works on autonomous vehicles, an area where the Dearborn-based company has lagged. He’ll be expected to develop the cars of the future.
Before accepting the job at Michigan, he had spent 30 years, including 20 as chief executive, at Steelcase. He was widely praised there upon his retirement in 2014.
“If you think about where Steelcase was 2000 and now, what he and his management team have done is nothing short of remarkable.” said, Rob Kirkbride, senior editor at The Monday Morning Quarterback, a publication that covers the office furniture industry, according to MLive.
But his tenure there was not without criticism. He led the company’s downsizing, including the loss of 12,000 jobs. The company shut down more than half of its 57 facilities.
“A lot of people had to leave, and yet I was trying to make the case that if we aren’t modern, we are going to be dead,” Mr. Hackett said, according to MLive. “It was really difficult because I genuinely felt the pain of everyone’s departure.”
Steelcase developed a reputation as a company with an eye toward innovation. In 1998, that meant promoting collaborative work environments and products like a cubicle with individual temperature controls and piped-in music.
In a 2012 interview with The New York Times, Mr. Hackett, then the chief executive at Steelcase, said authenticity was crucial for leadership. He spoke of a meeting he’d had with Bill Marriott, the executive chairman Marriott International.
“I had been struggling for six or seven months about this notion of identity. What does a C.E.O. look like and feel like?” he said. “What’s the texture of what you’re supposed to be? And I understood from seeing Bill Marriott’s eyes that you have to be who you are. Since then, because of the business we’re in, I’ve met just about every C.E.O. who runs a big company. The ones I’m most impressed with do not seem packaged. But they have this sense of peace, this self-awareness, that says, ‘I understand who I am.’ ”