Top labor exec John Savona leaves Ford after 33 years as UAW contract negotiations near

John Savona, who began at Ford as a factory security officer while his father earned an hourly wage on the assembly line, is leaving Ford Motor Co. as a top executive after more than three decades with the automaker.

Retirement of the "accomplished and respected" leader did not come as a surprise; it has been carefully planned, Ford said in a news release.

Savona is known for his trusted relationships with key UAW leaders on the front lines and plant employees who often view contract negotiations with skepticism. He has been a vocal champion for factory workers consistently. For example, he was heavily involved in discussions with the UAW that led to Ford moving thousands of temporary workers to permanent in June.

Bryce Currie will succeed Savona as vice president, Americas Manufacturing and Labor Affairs, on March 1.

Currie, most recently chief manufacturing officer at Johnson Controls, will begin at Ford on Jan. 30 so the men can work together for a "smooth handoff," the company said Wednesday.

Ronald Green, left, is a 43-year Kansas City Assembly Plant worker who talked with John Savona, Ford North America Manufacturing vice president on Tuesday, October 6, 2020 after a company celebration. They're standing in front of a 2021 F-150 pre-production prototype.
Ronald Green, left, is a 43-year Kansas City Assembly Plant worker who talked with John Savona, Ford North America Manufacturing vice president on Tuesday, October 6, 2020 after a company celebration. They're standing in front of a 2021 F-150 pre-production prototype.

The role will continue to report to Kumar Galhotra, president of Ford Blue.

Savona, who began his career with Ford in 1989 as a security officer at what's now Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, went on to manage auto plants and worked his way up to regional and global positions.

“The arc of John’s Ford career has a storybook quality, but it’s been real and significant,” Galhotra said in a statement. “He’s highly regarded by colleagues in the plants and all of Ford, and his ability to connect with people on a very personal level has helped us navigate extraordinary challenges in the past few years.”

Challenges have included "stopping, then restarting, operations with significant new safety protocols in 2020 amid the global pandemic; unprecedented and persistent supply chain issues; and renewal of Ford’s product lineup, including introducing high-performing, high-volume electric vehicles that are establishing the company as an EV leader," Ford said in a news release.

John Savona, as Ford vice president of North American manufacturing, assisted a World War II veteran from Kentucky on an "honor flight" with about 50 veterans headed to Washington, D.C. in 2012. Ford Motor Co. chartered a plane with veterans aged 87 to 93, guardians and medical staff to visit memorials for one day. It was part of the company's ongoing veterans recognition efforts.
John Savona, as Ford vice president of North American manufacturing, assisted a World War II veteran from Kentucky on an "honor flight" with about 50 veterans headed to Washington, D.C. in 2012. Ford Motor Co. chartered a plane with veterans aged 87 to 93, guardians and medical staff to visit memorials for one day. It was part of the company's ongoing veterans recognition efforts.

Savona ascended to the role of vice president, North America Manufacturing and Labor Affairs, and a corporate officer in 2018. Three years later, his role expanded to include South America production. Earlier in his career, Savona worked as director of Global Manufacturing Quality, led North America quality, and managed operations at several of the company’s U.S. manufacturing facilities, among other assignments, Ford said.

“I couldn’t have dreamed where these 33-plus years would take me professionally and personally,” Savona said in a statement. “It’s been a privilege to work at Ford and to grow with and learn from so many great people, especially the dedicated men and women who make our plants go every day.”

John Savona, left, is seen here as a private first class in the U.S. Army stationed in Wurzburg, Germany in 1987. He was active duty from 1986-89 and credits the military with his discipline and focus.
John Savona, left, is seen here as a private first class in the U.S. Army stationed in Wurzburg, Germany in 1987. He was active duty from 1986-89 and credits the military with his discipline and focus.

Savona, who served in the U.S. Army prior to working at Ford, is also a senior advisor to the Ford Veterans Network employee group. The network is focused on the contributions and needs of about 6,000 U.S. military veterans employed at Ford, and fosters relationships with and support for active military members and veterans outside the company.

"The military gave me an appreciation for how important is it is to work hard and work within a team," Savona told the Free Press in 2020. "If any member of the team doesn't do their job in the military, somebody dies. If we don't build a vehicle right, and there's a defect, it puts families at risk."

Savona earned a Bachelor of Science degree in criminology from Eastern Michigan University and a Master of Science in administration from Central Michigan University.

Who is next in line?

Currie, like Savona, is recognized for his "servant-leadership management style, understanding and providing teams with what they need to be most effective and rewarded," Ford said.

Currie’s Ford team will comprise more than 70,000 people — most of them members of the United Auto Workers in the U.S. and Unifor National in Canada — at 30-plus facilities. He’ll partner with product engineering, supply chain management and other functions to reach and sustain higher quality and lower complexity, waste and costs through implementation of the Ford Operating System.

Bryce Currie, who worked as chief manufacturing officer at Johnson Controls, joins Ford Motor Co. as vice president, Americas Manufacturing and Labor Affairs, on Jan. 30, 2023. He will replace John Savona, the company announced Jan. 11, 2023.
Bryce Currie, who worked as chief manufacturing officer at Johnson Controls, joins Ford Motor Co. as vice president, Americas Manufacturing and Labor Affairs, on Jan. 30, 2023. He will replace John Savona, the company announced Jan. 11, 2023.

Currie has spent three years at Johnson Controls, the past year as chief manufacturing officer. He "deployed lean manufacturing principles and digital management tools to transform an operation spanning nearly 90 plants and 120 distribution centers around the world," Ford said.

Many of about 30,000 people across those sites are represented by the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, known by the acronym SMART, as well as the UAW and other unions.

“Bryce is an inspirational manager with high integrity who’s skilled at running large, complex global industrial operations,” Galhotra said in a statement. “He constantly challenges himself and the people around him to imagine and achieve more on behalf of customers.”

Background prep for Currie

Prior to Johnson Controls, Currie worked at GE Aviation as a corporate officer with global responsibility for the jet engine assembly, overhaul, repair and test network, including on-wing support, as well as the unit’s lean system and overall quality, Ford said. At TRW Automotive (now part of ZF Group) from 2001 to 2014, Currie helped overhaul the company’s worldwide manufacturing systems, Ford said.

The UAW organized ZF in Marysville in 2021. The global car parts maker primarily produces axle drive components for major North American automotive manufacturers.

Currie's brother-in-law and niece are employed by Ford; Currie’s mother- and father-in-law retired from the company, Ford said.

“I see this less about returning to the auto industry than being part of creating something new and exciting,” Currie said in a statement. “Ford is helping define and deliver a future made possible by smart, connected gas and electric vehicles, and that’s very appealing to me.”

Currie started his career at AlliedSignal Bendix (now part of Honeywell), Ford said. He earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Purdue University and a master’s degree in business administration, with an emphasis on supply chain management, from Western Michigan University.

UAW reaction, what's ahead

Todd Dunn, president of UAW Local 862 that represents workers at Kentucky Truck and Louisville Assembly plants, told the Free Press Wednesday when asked about Savona's departure, "Over the years, working with John Savona at the assembly plants, I was able to not only communicate but sit down with whatever needs were at the moment and come up with a solution."

The departure hits Ford and the UAW hard. While Savona is known for being firm on business priorities, he is also known for being accessible, said Dunn, a Desert Storm Army veteran who noted they both served in the military police and had similar values.

"John Savona is unique. Servant leadership is how I describe it," Dunn told the Free Press in 2020. "He gets it. And it benefits morale."

What's ahead

The Detroit Three automakers renegotiate four-year contracts with the UAW in fall 2023. The labor union voted to strike GM in 2019 and it lasted 40 days. Ford, despite a history of clashing with the union, is widely praised now for its relationships with organized labor.

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Bill Dirksen, Ford's top labor negotiator, announced his retirement immediately after UAW contract ratification in 2019. He was succeeded by Kevin Legel as vice president of labor affairs.

Savona succeeded Ford's key global manufacturing executive Gary Johnson, who retired after 34 years in 2020.

"We've got a skilled and experienced Labor Affairs team lead by Kevin Legel and are going from strength to strength in terms of John's and Bryce's great relationships with colleagues in their plants," Ford spokesman Ian Thibodeau told the Free Press Wednesday.

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Contact Phoebe Wall Howard: 313-618-1034 or phoward@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @phoebesaid.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Labor exec John Savona departs Ford as Bryce Currie fills role