"BILL, THERE'S THE TOWN'S FORD DEALERSHIP," says Ford Div. President James G. O'Connor, looking out the window of a new Ford Focus that Public Affairs Manager Bill George is driving in Manchester, NH.

Mr. O'Connor wants to stop in and say hello to the local dealer. It's something he often does when he's on the road "even when he is 'off-duty' and with his wife," says Ford Public Affairs Director Anne Doyle.

But this time, he's too pressed for time. Mr. George reminds him he has a plane to catch.

For Mr. O'Connor, going to dealerships means returning to his career's early roots.

Mr. O'Connor, in New Hampshire for a media "ride-and-drive" preview of the new Ford Focus compact car, is probably the highest-level auto executive whose resume includes working for a dealership.

"I don't make a big to-do about that," he says. "When I meet with dealers, I don't tell them about having once worked for a dealership. But they get a sense of it when I ask them questions on, say, fixed operations, used-car inventory turns and shop productivity."

He worked as general manager of Bob Kelly's Ford dealership in Atlanta from 1967-70.

Before that the New York City native, whose father was an assistant district attorney, worked six years for Ford Motor Co. That was his first stint with the automaker.

He started working for Ford Motor Co. as a Villanova college graduate trainee in the company's Jacksonville office. He became a field representative, calling on 17 dealerships in central Florida.

He then became a department manager in charge of used-car marketing, then served as a Ford manager working on dealer franchising.

He was doing that when the Kelly dealership asked him to work for them. He liked working there, but they sold the Atlanta dealership. They asked Mr. O'Connor to relocate to another store in Pennsylvania.

He declined and rejoined Ford Motor Co., starting from scratch as a low-grade field rep. He spent the next 29 years climbing the corporate ladder. In late 1998, he moved from general manager of Lincoln Mercury Div. to president of Ford Div., an entity with $16 billion in annual revenues.

Mr. O'Connor says his dealership stint serves him well in understanding dealers and their concerns. "He's earned their respect and many times their affections," says Ms. Doyle.

He makes non-grand entrances when he's on the road and stops at local dealerships to say how-do.

"I'll walk in the back door, and talk to the prep people and service technicians about quality, or talk to the used-car people about what's selling well in their market," says Mr. O'Connor. "They'll say, 'Who are you?' I'll just say, 'I'm from Ford.'"

Mr. O'Connor says the entire automotive retail industry gets criticized for selling the deal. He says that should shift to selling the value of a car. He cites the new Focus he's riding in, pointing out its extras such as a telescoping steering wheel, side airbags in some models and "the best rear-seat leg room."

He says dealerships need to speed up the service process - getting those customers in and out - but slow down the sales process to improve the customer experience.

He avoids painting all dealers with the same brush.

"Some dealers do lots of things well and some do lots of things poorly," he says. "But I don't think any dealer who puts his name on his building intends to do things poorly.

"Dealers in today's business are concerned and confused as to how they fit in, what with changing technology and e-commerce.

"A lot of dealers don't have the money to invest in the new technology to communicate with us, the manufacturer. Yet that's how it's moving with on-line warranty processing, cash transfers and the like. A modern business has to stay current."

As the head of the world's largest vehicle division, Mr. O'Connor says a big part of his job is anticipating the market.

"I'm in the Ford design center a lot keeping abreast of upcoming products," he says. "Marketing is easy if you have the right product. But if the strategy you are working on involves the present, you're probably not working on the right things."

Meanwhile, he keeps up his dealer contacts. He just attended the funeral of a Traverse City, MI dealer. He plans to attend a testimonial dinner for Providence, RI, dealer Bob Tasca.

"I'm trying to figure out how to do a song about him with words sung to the tune of 'Danny Boy' because I'm Irish and 75% of the people at the Tasca dinner will be Italian," he says.

The Ford Focus ride-and-drive is about two-thirds over when Mr. O'Connor says, "Would you mind if I ride in the rear seat and get some work done?"

Back there, he uses his briefcase across his lap as a writing surface. He scribbles busily on a legal pad.

What's he writing? A speech for an upcoming dealer event in Philadelphia. He writes his own speeches. He says he'd feel awkward if someone else were to write one and hand it to him to read.

The theme of this impending speech to dealers is about working together; "that it's not me, and not you, but us," says Mr. O'Connor.

Steve Finlay is editor of Ward's Dealer Business. His e-mail address is: steve_finlay@intertec.com