Special Coverage

NADA Convention & Exposition

SAN FRANCISCO – Ford Motor Co. executives and dealers are decidedly optimistic following the auto maker’s dealer franchise meeting at the annual National Automobile Dealers Assn. conference here.

The prevailing message from dealers is Ford’s new leadership team, led by President and CEO Alan Mulally, is listening to their wants and needs, something past leaders have not done.

“It’s a new day,” Kevin Massie, owner of Napa Ford Lincoln Mercury in Napa, CA, tells Ward’s. “Alan Mulally has brought in a helluva team and as a dealer, I’m thrilled to see it. We’re seeing the light of the new millennium. The light bulb has gone on at Ford, and we’re seeing a change.”

Massie says he is especially pleased to see Ford’s renewed emphasis on cars. As a California dealer, Massie has seen sales erode at the hands of foreign competitors that offer a full line of smaller, fuel-efficient cars.

Several dealers say Jim Farley, group vice president, marketing and communications, has struck a chord with them, giving them faith the struggling auto maker is heading for a turnaround.

“Jim Farley is a big help to us,” says Lars Frieberg, general manager of Salinas Valley (CA) “Ford’s quality has increased. Now we have to get the message to the people, and that’s what we’re going to work on this year. Farley is encouraging people to have faith and trust Ford.”

Steve Rogers, owner of Steve Rogers Ford in Waterville, OH, says the mood in today’s meeting here was the most upbeat he has seen in years.

“Jim Farley is well accepted and certainly an asset to our team. We’re all excited he is here,” he says. “Ford is turning the corner, and we (dealers) feel better about the future now.”

Farley says his job is to listen to dealers and give them what they need to increase profitability. “Dealers are telling us what to do, and at the end of the day it will all make sense,” he says of dealer-inspired actions the auto maker will be taking in the future.

The new marketing chief says he told dealers at the meeting he plans to unveil a new marketing initiative in the next month or so. He declines to reveal specifics of the plan, saying it’s a “family matter,” and when it’s unveiled “it will speak for itself.”

Farley says his regional marketing approach, which allocates funding to specific markets, is working. “We’re not spending more money, we’re just redistributing it,” he says.

Ford has launched a specialized marketing approach in California, where the auto maker traditionally has struggled. However, he declines to reveal details of the initiative.

In addition to working closely with dealers, Farley says one of his most pressing jobs is restoring consumer trust in the Ford brand. While some pundits say Ford has burned too many bridges due to shoddy quality, Farley says customers are smart and will respond to the auto maker’s renewed emphasis on quality and technological advancement.

Customers “are always looking for a good idea,” he says. “You just have to give them a chance.”

Mark Fields, president-The Americas, says the topic of dealer consolidation didn’t come up during the meeting. “We’re handling it (consolidation) in a fair way so it didn’t come up.”

Brian Jarrett, owner of five Ford dealerships in central Florida and vice chairman of the Ford Dealer Council, says Ford’s quality improvements have resulted in the fewest warranty repairs he has seen in three decades of business.

“In the short term that’s a problem,” he says, referring to reduced profits due to the lost repair work. “But in the long term that’s what we want.”

While most of what was said in the closed-door meeting remained confidential, the message sent by Ford executives to its dealers clearly resonated.

Says Sam Wright, owner of Quality Ford in Mount Vernon, NY: “What I heard today is very encouraging. I think company is going in the right direction.”

bpope@wardsauto.com