DEARBORN – Ford Motor Co.’s successful venture into the hybrid arena has come with plenty of well-documented bullet wounds.

Since showing a serious commitment earlier in the decade to putting the Escape Hybrid cross/utility vehicle on the market, the auto maker has been criticized for being late on its promises, weak on core competencies and shallow in its intentions.

The Escape Hybrid’s success transcends profit margins.

Early sales returns, media reviews and quality metrics suggest the pain was worth it, if only from a publicity standpoint.

But the investment is starting to pay off in an area not often recognized by those caught up in the hybrid hoopla, Phil Martens, group vice president-North American product creation, says during a recent product forum here.

“We can recruit better,” he says, referring to the wave of qualified engineers and scientists who recently have expressed interest in the company due to its U.S.-based hybrid-vehicle development program.

Martens says the newly formed Sustainable Mobility Technologies and Hybrid Vehicle Programs department is the fastest-growing wing of Ford’s product-development organization, thanks to the eagerness with which employees are willing to transfer from other Ford programs and new hires successfully recruited from other companies and America’s top schools.

Drawing recruits is one of the keys to winning the advanced technology race under way between Ford and domestic rival General Motors Corp.

Martens says Ford has centralized its global hybrid-development operations in Dearborn in hopes of keeping the core competency close to home and quality under control. The move also advances the company’s efforts to build a U.S.-based hybrid supply chain. (See related story: Toyota Technology ‘Kick-Started’ Ford’s Hybrid Escape)

“Clearly, inside the company, we’ve set up the group here (in Dearborn) that is the center of planning and engineering activities for the worldwide hybrid system at Ford so that we can get everything right from the beginning,” Martens says. “We have participation from every brand, so this is clearly worldwide.”

Ford sees an early advantage in being able to demonstrate its commitment by turning out 20,000 copies of the Escape Hybrid per year, Mary Ann Wright, director-Sustainability Mobility Technologies and Hybrid Vehicle Programs, tells Ward’s. She says the auto maker is fielding interest from prospects ranging from former National Aeronautics and Space Admin. rocket scientists to up-and-coming members of the Society of Women Engineers.

While Wright’s title is long, her job is simple: Funnel Ford’s immense research in various advanced technologies – including hydrogen fuel cells and hybrids – into implementation teams focused on bringing the technology to market on time and within cost targets. (See related story: Escape Hybrid Chief Named Ford’s Hybrid Director)

In addition to the Escape Hybrid, Wright’s team currently is winding down the launch of a hydrogen-powered Focus FCV production program that calls for 30 fuel-cell vehicles to be built in 2005. Assembly of those vehicles is under way in Kansas City and Detroit, respectively – with both projects costing the company billions of dollars based on analyst estimates. (See related story: Ford’s Fuel-Cell Target May Trail Japan)

More than anything, Ford’s recruiting coup facilitates the road ahead, as the auto maker zeroes in on firming up its hybrid supplier base, navigating the ever-evolving battery technology landscape and reaching its firmly planted targets set for the next decade.

Ford has the goal of launching at least three more hybrids under three brand names by decade’s end (Mercury Mariner CUV in ’07 and a hybrid Mazda Tribute CUV and Ford Fusion sedan some time later in the decade), and currently is on pace to bring a limited number of fuel-cell vehicles to customers in the 2015 timeframe.

Ford will roll out a second-generation Focus FCV “in a couple years” and an all-new fuel-cell vehicle “a couple years” after that, Wright says.

Martens says the auto maker is looking at most major markets outside the U.S. and Canada for Ford’s hybrids – most notably China and Western Europe.

“The only region where we don’t see what I would call ‘increased demand pull’ is Japan,” Martens says.

Japan, of course, is the breeding ground for Toyota Motor Corp.’s hybrid-development program. Toyota has licensed technology to Ford, but Ford says the heart and soul of its hybrid system was developed in the U.S. through its own relationships with suppliers.

Toyota and Ford, for instance, employ a different battery pack specifically developed for each application. Panasonic EV Energy Co. Ltd. supplies Toyota, while Sanyo Electric Co. Ltd. supplies Ford. (See related story: Sanyo Enters Automotive Arena with Hybrid Escape Battery Pack)

The biggest variable for Ford’s growing development team is the evolution of battery technology, Martens says, and Ford will not outsource the core competency in this area.

“Battery technologies change rapidly. If you look at where we are (compared) to what we’re planning down the road and you get into the next-generation battery technologies, (you will see) they’re different setups and manufacturing processes, and I don’t see a stabilization in that for the balance of this decade.”

As Ford’s Sustainable Mobility department tackles issues such as battery development head on, the auto maker’s technical competency only should grow on the macro level, Martens says. Such growth potential is one of the key reasons he’s already calling Ford’s hybrid investment profitable, well before it ever makes it into the black on a balance sheet.

“It depends on how you define profitability,” he says. “I define it differently than what normally we would say. It gets into (the question of), ‘Was the investment profitable for the company as a whole?’”

Martens points to the recruiting boom, combined with the new customers Ford has gained by offering the hybrid CUV and stronger relationships with suppliers that have resulted through North American development as being the hybrid program’s long-run payoff.

“So in that sense, for what we’ve invested, the return has actually been very positive,” he says. “I think that’s how Toyota defines (profitability) too, to be honest with you.”