LOS ANGELES – The future of Ford Motor Co. only can be secured by putting customers first and abandoning forever the pompousness of the past, Mark Fields, president-North American operations, says at the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show here.

His message hints at the direction of the “Way Forward” plan, a turnaround strategy Ford is scheduled to reveal Jan. 23, when it releases fourth-quarter earnings.

Fields, whose career has seen him rejuvenate Mazda Motor Corp. and Ford's European operations including the Premier Automotive Group, declines to discuss details of the Way Forward.

But he suggests headcount reductions will be a significant component because Ford's capacity is more in line with the market share it enjoyed 10 years ago.

Ford executives previously have said the auto maker has four more plants than it needs in the U.S.

The employees who remain after the shakeout must learn to anticipate customer needs, Fields says.

Mark Fields

“One of the messages I'm delivering to the Ford team is we have to cast off this notion of the Big Three,” Fields says. “Those days are long gone.”

The culture at Ford must go “from a sense of entitlement to one of, 'We need to earn our customers every day.'”

Fields uses his speech to bloody the noses of Ford's chief competitors – General Motors Corp., Toyota Motor Corp. and DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group – as he serves notice that “it's time to go on offense.”

He appears to contradict himself in an apparent swipe at Chrysler, which has launched a concerted campaign to distance itself from the traditional Big Three.

“It makes for great headlines, but it's the wrong debate,” Fields says. “The real focus should be the up-for-grabs Big Six – the battle among the six huge North American, European and Asian companies for growth and profit in the North American market.”

In a shot at GM's push to realize growth from continued emphasis on pickups and SUVs, Fields tells journalists: “That 'build-it-and-they-will-come attitude' is not only business as usual, it's the old thinking that we need to shed as American auto makers.”

There is considerable cachet attached to American styling and innovation, and Ford plans to exploit its historic association with those features.

But Fields labels Toyota as a pretender.

“Toyota is desperately trying to cast itself as an American brand,” he says. “Toyota has scored points by investing in the U.S. But that doesn't make it an American brand.

“Customers identify Ford and its uniquely American story, even if they're not buying cars from us today. The innovations and life of Henry Ford are taught in our grade schools. Ford vehicles from the Model T to the Mustang are part of our national consciousness.”

Reinforcing Ford's internal “Red, White and Bold” strategy to align itself with American ideals, Fields points to the Ford Fusion sedan, which launches later this year with all-wheel drive.

“When we made the decision to play offense, to fight back, to re-enter the midsize car market with a bold American design, people took notice,” hes says, adding Ford will add a third production shift at its Fusion assembly site in Hermosillo, Mexico.

The third shift will launch next month.

Hermosillo also builds the Lincoln Zephyr and Mercury Milan, which share the CD3 platform with the Fusion.

Going forward, anticipation will be key to Ford's improved customer responsiveness, Fields says. This means fuel-efficient cross/utility vehicles and small cars will be instrumental in the auto maker's product plans because of rising gasoline prices and changing consumer tastes.

On Sunday, Ford will unveil its new '07 Ford Edge CUV at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The auto maker also will display a B-segment small car in Detroit.

“Mark my words, small is big in America – particularly among the 'under-30 set.'”

Ford's California designers are crafting potential B-car entries for the U.S. market. While he makes no promises, Fields suggests the blue oval could adorn a B-car soon, anticipating that the subcompact market will be most attractive in the next three years.

emayne@primediabusiness.com