NEW YORK – Joe Hinrichs, Ford’s president-the Americas, says the automaker’s new customer-engagement effort is paying dividends in the marketplace and production of the groundbreaking new F-150 large pickup remains on schedule.

Hinrichs credits an overhaul in the 111-year-old company’s culture for delivering recent gains in key market metrics such as customer satisfaction, dealer loyalty and retail sales.

“For customer engagement, we need employee engagement,” Hinrichs tells the 2014 Automotive Forum here, an event linked to the New York auto show and sponsored by the National Automobile Dealers Assn. and J.D. Power.

“We need engaged employees,” he adds. “That leads to long-term loyalty.”

Ford sales so far this year are down 3.0% to 568,695 from 585,877 year-ago, compared with an industry up 1.3% in the Jan.-March period, according to WardsAuto data. Ford’s first-quarter market share stood at 15.2% of light-vehicle sales vs. 15.9% year-ago.

Hinrichs says today’s Ford brings employees together every week to share business issues and, perhaps most importantly, ask for help. It has created a “safe, trusting environment” necessary for the automaker to innovate for its customers.

“Innovation takes risk,” he adds. “We do not want a situation where we are not taking risks.”

Hinrichs admits the risk-taking environment at Ford has not produced altogether perfect results. The automaker’s MyFord Touch infotainment system performed badly in customer-satisfaction surveys last year, and the radical Ford C-Max hybrid stumbled after a restatement of its fuel-economy estimates.

The executive declines to confirm plans to abandon Microsoft in favor of QNX as the MyFord Touch operating system supplier, but likes the software tweaks recently performed on the technology.

“I’m very pleased with the latest software,” he says. “We’ll continue to study what’s out there and do what’s best for our customers,” Hinrichs says of the QNX rumors.

C-Max sales, however, continue to be soft, with volume down 53.8% through March. Hinrichs says the automaker must take another run at the product.

“The nameplate was affected by the restatement,” he says, noting both sales and consideration declined last year. “We need to reinvest in the product. It is competitive in every dimension.”

As for the delicate launch of the ’15 Ford F-150, the best-selling vehicle in the U.S. and one set to receive major changes in its redesign such as an unprecedented use of aluminum in place of steel, Hinrichs says the plan is on track.

Aluminum will shave 700 lbs. (318 kg) off the truck, allowing Ford to use a smaller, more fuel-efficient engine without sacrificing key towing and hauling performance items. In fact, Hinrichs says, the shift will make the new F-150 positive to Ford’s CAFE obligations for the first time since its launch in 1974.

However, such extensive use of aluminum presents both manufacturing and dealer service challenges. But Hinrichs says the truck’s fourth-quarter production launch with salable vehicles by year’s end remains on track and dealers are ahead of schedule in signing up service training.

jamend@wardsauto.com