Ford Motor Co (F.N) Chief Executive Alan Mulally, credited with steering the automaker's turnaround, won an endorsement for an indefinite tenure from Ford's chairman and the founding family's senior representative at the company.

I want Alan to stay as long as he would like to stay and hopefully that is quite a while, Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. told Reuters on the sidelines of a Detroit Economic Club event on Wednesday.

Bill Ford's comments marked the first time he had addressed Mulally's stewardship as chief executive since rivals General Motors Co GM.UL and Chrysler Group LLC emerged from U.S.-government sponsored bankruptcy protection with new ownership and management.

Mulally, 64, joined Ford in September 2006 after being recruited by Bill Ford Jr., who stepped aside as CEO to hire him away from Boeing Co (BA.N) where he was head of its commercial airplanes business.

The automaker was in a precarious position and widely seen as the weakest of the three Detroit car companies when Ford hired Mulally to revive a turnaround effort that had failed to take hold.

An auto industry outsider then, Mulally is now the longest-serving CEO among the U.S. automakers. GM's Rick Wagoner, Chrysler's Bob Nardelli and Mulally all testified to the U.S. Congress for an industry bailout less than a year ago.

Wagoner and Nardelli are now gone, GM is majority state-owned and Chrysler is under the management control of Italy's Fiat SpA (FIA.MI).

Wagoner was forced out by the Obama administration. Nardelli resigned from Chrysler in June.

Bill Ford said the automaker has had a succession plan since the day Mulally was hired. He declined to provide details.

Any good corporate governance dictates that you always have succession planning, and that is something we do on a regular basis, Ford said. As a chairman that is obviously something that I spend a lot of time on.


Mulally has been credited with speeding up decision-making at the automaker by stripping away layers of management and holding weekly meetings to pull together officers from across regions, emphasizing a One Ford focus.

Analysts have credited that focus, and the borrowing of about $23 billion in late 2006 to finance the turnaround plan, as helping put the automaker in a better position than its U.S. rivals to navigate the severe U.S. recession.

The automaker has said it expects to return to at least break-even in 2011 on a yearly basis.

The U.S. economy has shown encouraging signs, but anyone's ability to call a bottom would be tenuous, Ford said on Wednesday.

For me unemployment is the big thing because it is hard to say the economy is getting better until people are getting back to work, and so that is something I look at very closely, Ford said.

We have seen over the last several months a small but steady increase in customer traffic and purchases, he said. We feel encouraged, but we are certainly nowhere (near) yet where we would like to be in terms of the economy.

Ford Motor on Tuesday reported a 17 percent U.S. sales increase for August, the second consecutive month of increases for the company, with support from the U.S. government's cash for clunkers incentive program.

(Reporting by David Bailey, editing by Leslie Gevirtz, Gerald E. McCormick and Matthew Lewis)