By Norihiko Shirouzu and Paul Ingrassia
WUHAN, China (Reuters) - Ford Motor Co (NYS:F) Chief Executive Alan Mulally repeatedly declined to dismiss reports that he was approached to run Boeing Co (NYS:BA) or Microsoft Corp (NSQ:MSFT), and neither would he confirm speculation to that effect.
"I love serving Ford" was Mulally's repeated comment on the sidelines of an auto conference in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, when asked if he had been approached either directly or indirectly to lead either of those companies.
His refusal to confirm or deny the reports about his plans after he leaves Ford intensifies speculation that he is being wooed by Boeing or Microsoft.
Ford has repeatedly said there was no change to a plan for executive appointments announced last November, which included Mulally's. Mulally was set to continue to serve as Ford CEO through the end of 2014, giving the automaker more time to gauge potential successors, notably Chief Operating Officer Mark Fields, who now oversees most of Ford's daily operations.
"There is no change in the plan that we outlined in November of last year," Mulally told Reuters on Friday. However, Reuters has reported that Ford's board might be open to his departure before his current contract expires in 15 months.
Mulally, who is 68 years old, came to Ford from Boeing after 38 years there. He is now the third longest serving CEO in Ford's history after Henry Ford I and Henry Ford II.
He has been credited for leading the dramatic resurgence at the U.S. automaker since his arrival in 2006. His name has lately been mentioned in several reports, mostly speculative, that he might be a candidate for the top job at either Boeing or Microsoft.
Both companies have faced well-publicised struggles lately: Boeing with its problem-plagued 787 Dreamliner commercial jetliner launch and Microsoft with a stock price that has been stagnant for a decade.
When Mulally, poached by Ford from Boeing after being passed over for the CEO job there, arrived in Dearborn, Michigan, to run the No.2 U.S. auto maker, the company was in precarious financial and operational shape. Mulally is credited with creating since a more open, collaborative atmosphere that allowed problems to be tackled more quickly.
He arranged for Ford to borrow $23 billion and instituted a plan, dubbed "One Ford", to simplify and unify product development. As part of that One Ford plan, Mulally sold off brands his predecessors acquired - Aston Martin, Land Rover, Jaguar and Volvo - to refocus Ford's business on two brands: Ford and Lincoln.
The company also has reduced its number of distinct vehicle platforms to less than 20 from more than 90, dramatically cutting manufacturing costs.
As a result, the automaker was able to avoid bankruptcy and the federal bailouts needed by its U.S. competitors General Motors Co (GM.N) and Chrysler Group LLC (UAWREC.UL) in 2009.
While it still faces an array of issues including its troubled operations in Europe, the company has restored profitability.
In China, another weak spot where Ford has been a laggard in the fast-growing market, is finally showing sign of life too. Ford is set to sell a total of more than 900,000 vehicles in China this year, outpacing Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T> and Honda Motor Co Ltd <7267.T>, though it lags far behind Volkswagen AG (GER:VOW3) and General Motors Co (GM.N).
Mulally still maintains a home in Seattle, where Microsoft is headquartered and where Boeing has its major operating base, though its headquarters are in Chicago. He also has close ties to senior officials at both companies.
Mulally already has passed the normal retirement age if 65 for most American executives, but he sports the look and demeanour of a much younger man. He said in Wuhan that he has not decided whether he might be open to an executive post at another company after leaving Ford.
When asked that question, the famously affable executive laughed and said: "I don't know".
(Writing by Ryan Woo; Editing by Jean Yoon)