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Ford chairman praises CEO, mulls lithium venture

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FILE PHOTO - Newly named Ford Motor Company president and CEO James Hackett answers questions from the media during a press conference at Ford Motor World Headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S., May 22, 2017. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
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By Ernest Scheyder

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Ford Motor Co Executive Chairman Bill Ford said on Tuesday that he is very confident in Chief Executive James Hackett's leadership and that the automaker is considering striking supply deals with a lithium producer.

Ford, the second-largest U.S. automaker, is in the midst of a restructuring of global operations and is spending $11 billion to bring 40 electrified vehicles to the market by 2022, part a move by the company to take part in the electrification trend sweeping the automotive industry.

Michigan-based Ford has also announced a commercial vehicle alliance with Germany's Volkswagen AG, with plans to jointly develop electric and self-driving vehicles.

Still, attempts to ramp up electric vehicle production have been uneven. Ford's 2018 profit disappointed many investors and analysts, sparking questions about Hackett's tenure.

Hackett, a former executive with furniture maker Steelcase Inc , has been in his role for nearly two years and replaced Mark Fields, who was in his job for less than three years.

Bill Ford, whose family founded and controls the eponymous automaker, said he fully supports Hackett's plans to expand the electric fleet, including development of an electric F-150 truck, the best-selling American vehicle for decades.

"I think the ability to hold the now, the near and the far all together at one time is something you don't always see in executives. And Jim (Hackett) has that," Ford told Reuters on the sidelines of the CERAWeek energy conference in Houston.

"We're changing a lot. And change is difficult."

As the company seeks electrification growth, it is considering forging supply deals with lithium producers, Ford said. Lithium is a key ingredient to make lithium-ion batteries, which power electric vehicles.

Ford rival Tesla Inc has a lithium supply deal with Australia's Kidman Resources Ltd .

"We are looking at the entire supply chain and where we want to play," Ford said, without mentioning a specific company. Albemarle Corp and SQM are the world's largest lithium producers.

Ford also said he was unaware of any conversations between Alphabet Inc's Waymo self-driving vehicle unit and Volkswagen.

"I know nothing about any discussions with Waymo and VW," Ford said. "But our plans don't change at all. We have very clear ideas of where we want to go" with the VW partnership.

Media reports in recent weeks suggested Waymo was eyeing a deal with Volkswagen, which could have imperiled Ford's partnership with the German automaker. Volkswagen CEO Herbert Diess denied those reports earlier on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Ernest Scheyder; Editing by Marguerita Choy and David Gregorio)