Mulally's Challenge at Ford — Keeping the Growth Engine Running

Ford Sign
Ford Sign

At the Ford annual meeting in Wilmington, Delaware it's been all smiles.

And for good reason.

In the last year, Ford shares have steadily moved higher and are now trading over $15 a share. (Track Ford Stock Here.)

The company is coming off of a first quarter where it posted the best earningsin more than a decade and the outlook is for higher profits and sales. No wonder one shareholder paraded around the meeting with a T-shirt saying Ford shares should eventually climb to $37 a share.

Drink it up Ford investors, it's been a long time since you've been able to say things were this good.

OK, now put down the champagne glass and listen to CEO Alan Mulally. While the man is as tickled as anyone at how far Ford has come in the last five years, he warned investors and company leaders, "Ford has to go farther faster."

He's right. Now we'll see if this is truly a new Ford that can handle success and continue growing or the old Ford that gets high on success and stumbles after a few very profitable years.

Oh I can already see the e-mails coming in from Ford investors blasting me for even suggesting Ford would take its eyes off the ball. To all of you I say "wake up and smell the coffee." Ford, like many long standing Fortune 500 companies, has a well documented track record of slacking off when times are good.

Heck, even chairman Bill Ford Jr. will tell you himself that his family business has drifted when profits are rolling in. So for starters, accept that this has long been an issue at Ford.

Does that mean it will happen again? No. Not if Mulally and Bill Ford Jr. can help it.

There's no shortage of areas where the company faces challenges. The Lincoln brand is a prime example. Mulally loves to talk about how the brand has fabulous cars on the way and will become a first rate competitor in the upscale/near luxury space. Truth is the brand is struggling to find its way with sales down more than 8% this year (industry sales up 19.6%) and Ford still needs to fix its dealer network.

Need more examples? Ford is coming on strong in China and Asia but is still way behind the competition in the fastest growing region for auto sales. If Ford is going to to win the next 10-20 years in the auto business it needs to win in China. And here in the US Ford needs to make sure the next wave of new models hits the mark as much as the last round.

These are not impossible challenges to overcome and Mulally has shown he knows how to lead Ford towards a clear goal. But this is also a company known for complacency when things are going well.

Will Ford employees and executives stay hungry and aggressive?

What happens when Mulally eventually steps downand there is a management shuffle?

The next five years are critical and if Ford investors want to have more happy annual meetings in years to come, they better hope the company heeds Mulally's message.

Click on Ticker to Track Corporate News:

- General Motors

- Ford Motor

- Toyota Motor

- Nissan

- Honda Motor

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