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Detroit • Mark Fields has a higher probability of becoming Ford's next CEO with his promotion to chief operating officer next month, but he will have to be even more patient.

Executive Chairman Bill Ford also clarified that Alan Mulally, the automaker's venerated 67-year-old CEO, won't step down until the end of 2014 at the earliest, making him Ford's longest-serving CEO since Henry Ford II's 34-year tenure.

"Alan is here two more years," Bill Ford said, adding the time frame "could go longer." The two have shared a strong working relationship ever since the founder's great-grandson asked Mulally to replace him slightly more than six years ago. Since then, Mulally has orchestrated a financial, cultural and product-led turnaround, all without needing emergency loans such as what the federal government made to General Motors and Chrysler in 2008 and 2009.

"I've never enjoyed working with anyone so much, so I'd like him to stay forever," Ford said.

Mulally's retirement date was the subject of much speculation across the industry. Many observers had expected he would step down at the end of 2013.

"I was surprised at the length of the tenure for Alan, but also pleased," said analyst Rebecca Lindland of IHS Automotive in Greenwich, Conn. "They are trying to show Wall Street that they have a succession plan."

Extending Mulally's leadership buys more time for Wall Street to warm up to Fields and other top leaders.

Those other executives include Joe Hinrichs, 45, who moves from president of Ford's Asia Pacific Africa business to succeed Fields as president of the Americas.

While most people saw the announcements as confirmation that Fields is Mulally's heir apparent, a Morgan Stanley report said "a specific CEO successor is far less obvious today. The next Ford CEO is truly up for grabs. "

Neither Bill Ford nor Mulally would say that Fields is being groomed to be CEO, but the executive chairman said again that he prefers that the next CEO be an insider.

In his new position, Fields will lead the Thursday business plan meetings that Mulally created after joining Ford in September 2006. The meetings became part of Ford's internal lore for Mulally's success in encouraging executives to bring him bad news as soon as they learned it. Mulally also reduced Ford's corporate infighting and pounded his "One Ford" mantra into something of a religion for those reporting to him.

Mulally will still oversee the One Ford global plan, but with fewer direct reports, including Fields, Ford's general counsel, head of human resources and chief financial officer.

The automaker's leaner North American operations and more compelling portfolio of passenger cars are generating profits large enough to overcome what it expects will be a $1.5 billion loss in Europe this year. As the head of the Americas, Fields deserves much of the credit for the turnaround.

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