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Who Will Take Over Ford After Mulally?

Talk about a tough act to follow. Ford CEO Alan Mulally has taken an iconic American company that was on the brink of bankruptcy and turned it into a very profitable and highly regarded company.

Oh and he did it with grace, good humor, and that Midwestern charm he was raised with in Kansas. Yes, Mulally has not said when exactly he will leave Ford and he shows no sign of slowing down. That said, he's 66 and has a keen sense of timing about when it would be right for him AND the Ford Motor Company to step down.

My gut says that by the end of 2013, Mulally will turn over the keys to the CEO office at Ford. Mulally and Chairman Bill Ford Jr. have both said the company has a succession plan, but will not reveal any details about it or who would be in consideration to replace Mulally as CEO. With that in mind, here are the most likely heirs to the throne in Dearborn and what auto industry insiders think of each man.

Mark Fields: Executive VP, Ford Motor Company; President, The Americas. Years with Ford: 22

Mark Fields
Source: Ford
Mark Fields

Fields is considered by many to be the odds on favorite to replace Mulally for a variety of reasons.

Since taking over Ford operations in North and South America in 2005, Fields has quietly lead a renaissance in both regions. I say quietly because Fields does not get the credit he deserves.

Many in the press believe Mulally is the main reason Ford has staged a resurgence, but that would not be giving Fields enough credit.

Over the last year in particular he has taken on a greater leadership role within the company. To quote one auto industry veteran who works extensively with Ford, "Fields has raised his game. People inside Ford and in the industry can see him running Ford after Mulally."

Jim Farley: Group Vice President, Global Marketing, Sales and Service. Years with Ford: 4

James Farley
Source: Ford
James Farley

Farley was a key, early hire by Alan Mulally. He was brought in from Toyota to revamp Ford's marketing, and he's done a spectacular job. Think back to Ford marketing before Farley?

It was disjointed, uninspiring, and, in my opinion, forgettable. All of that changed under Farley. Ford now has a clear, clean message and more importantly, it's a message that connects with car buyers.

Farley's positioning of Ford has been a primary reason the company has steadily picked up market share in the U.S. But don't make the mistake of thinking Farley is simply an "ad man". He was raised in the auto business, and to quote an executive at a Ford competitor, "Farley is sharp. Don't underestimate him. He could run Ford and the company wouldn't skip a beat."

Joe Hinrichs: Group Vice President and President, Asia Pacific and Africa. Chairman and CEO of Ford China. Years with Ford: 11

Hinrichs has quickly moved up the ranks at Ford since joining the company in 2000 as plant manager of the Van Dyke Transmission Plant in Sterling Heights, Michigan.

There's a reason for that: Hinrichs has delivered at every stop he's made at Ford, including now, as the man running Ford operations in Asia and China.

Joe Hinrichs
Source: Ford
Joe Hinrichs

For years, Ford failed to aggressively go after business in that part of the world. All that changed under Mulally, and Hinrichs is the man leading the charge in China, India, and the rest of Asia.

He's overseen Ford's rapid growth in India by working with his team to come up with entry level cars that Indians want to buy.

And with Ford now boosting sales and adding plants in China, Hinrichs is in the sweet spot to make Ford a player in the fastest growing region of the world for auto sales.

An auto consultant who has done business with Ford calls Hinrichs, "A leader Ford's board will eventually have to elevate to higher level. He's a guy they don't want to lose."

I've spent time with all three men and I have to admit, each one is very impressive. I can see the case for Ford elevating any one of them to the CEO suite when Mulally leaves. All three would continue with Mulally's broad strategy of "One Ford."

The wild card in all of this is the Chairman of the company, Bill Ford. He hit a home run with Mulally. When he was searching for who would get the CEO job back in 2006, Ford's gut feeling about Mulally played a huge role in convincing him to bring in an outsider to run the company. I suspect, his gut feeling about which of these three men is best to succeed Mulally will be a critical factor in who the board chooses as the heir to the throne at Ford.

Watch CNBC all day Friday, April 29 for special "Heir To The Throne" reports about CEO succession plans at five companies: Kate Kelly reports about Goldman Sachs on "Squawk On The Street," 10am ET; Jon Fortt reports about Apple on "The Call," 11am ET; Julia Boorstin reports about News Corp. on "Power Lunch," 1pm ET; Phil Lebeau reports about Ford on "Street Signs," 2pm ET; and Mary Thompson reports about AIG on "Closing Bell," 3-5pm ET.

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___________________________ Questions? Comments?BehindTheWheel@cnbc.comand Follow me on Twitter @LeBeauCarNews

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