Special Coverage

NADA Convention & Exposition

NEW ORLEANS – Ford Motor Co. is placing greater importance on reconnecting with its dealer network, Mark Fields, president-The Americas, says.

The auto maker has worked hard over the last several years to strengthen ties with its suppliers and the United Auto Workers union and now is turning its attention to its dealers, Fields says in his keynote speech at the J.D. Power and Associates Automotive Roundtable, an event held in conjunction with the National Automobile Dealers Assn. convention here.

“We are working with our dealers in many key areas and involving them much earlier in our product decisions,” he says. “About 18 months ago, I had the chance to sit down with some of our key dealers, and we talked about the kinds of changes they wanted in our products.

One important change is earlier involvement in product development. Instead of seeing vehicles a year from launch, when they helped decide minor details such as color and trim, today 34 Lincoln and Mercury dealers now have a say in which products Ford will introduce three to four years out.

“And their voice is heard on everything from powertrain decisions to packaging, color and trim,” Fields says. “These are some of the major changes brought about by our dealer council.”

Another turning point was the launch of last year’s “Ford One” marketing strategy.

“Instead of having a ready-made campaign that was handed to the dealers, as we’ve done in the past, we enlisted the help of our dealer council and marketing dealer advisory board months before we launched it,” Fields says.

“From the original concept to the focus groups and even choosing the final tagline, our key dealers really helped make sure the ‘Drive One’ (campaign) works, not just nationally, but also on the Tier 2 and Tier 3 levels.”

The collaborative approach with dealers is a profound change for Ford, Fields says. “We understand in new and very meaningful ways that a healthy and profitable dealer network is essential to our success.

“As we work through this very tough period in the industry, as we work to grow our sales and earn consideration for our products, we are focusing on the fundamentals that have really affected our dealers’ businesses, as well as our own.”

Such efforts appear to be paying off, as Ford was one of the few OEMs to deplete inventory in the fourth quarter of last year.

“We now have one of the lowest days’ supply in the industry,” Fields says. “And as we are relieving inventory pressures, we are also working to reduce complexity and streamlining vehicle combinations.”

In addition, Ford’s total U.S. market share in 2008 was 14.2%, the lowest year-over-year decline among the domestic auto makers. “It was also our lowest decline this decade,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, we don’t like declines. Some of our objectives are to save money and grow market share.”

Fields points to California, where the Ford, Lincoln and Mercury brands finished the year with nearly a point higher (retail) share in the fourth quarter compared with first quarter.

“That comes back to getting together with a number of our California dealers a little over a year ago and asking them what we needed to do to be successful in California,” he says. “We planned together, put resources behind it and collectively went out and executed.”

Fields says 2009 likely won’t be any easier than 2008.

“Let’s not worry about the things we can’t control and focus on things we can do to help our business,” he says. “We are really fortifying our relationships with our dealers, with suppliers, with the UAW and other key partners.”

dstark@wardsauto.com