He bore the brunt of dealer scorn towardsMotor Co. pur-chasing franchised stores. But Ross H. Roberts did not leave mad when he wrapped up his 37-year career in Ford sales.
"The thing I'll miss the most is the dealer relationships," he declares. "We had many differences of opinion over the years, but I enjoyed giving them plaques for tenure and achievements and meeting their families.
"Even when there were problems, I don't recall one day I didn't look forward to coming to work."
Mr. Roberts, 61, is convinced that the factory should play a role in retail if the local market or a particular dealer's exit desire warrants it.
"Why bar automakers from a buyout or a partnership arrangement when no other industry is kept out of retail?" he asks. "To say we'd give dealerships we own privileged treatment is nonsense. Our sales agreements prohibit unfair treatment through distribution or anything else, and they're right in doing so."
Mr. Roberts headed theDivision for seven years before being named president in May, 1998, of Ford Investment Enterprises Corp. (FICO). It manages Ford's five urban dealership "collections" in various mid-size markets.
Mr. Roberts concedes that several collections have encountered tough weather.
The collection in Rochester, NY, turned out to be "strictly" an exit vehicle for several dealers who sold their stores to Ford, he notes, "leaving formerly loyal customers without the dealers they knew on hand.
"In Tulsa, OK, we had to change the original business model, but it is in good shape now. It's been a learning experience, but we expected that.
"One thing we decided early on not to do in the collection cities was open a used-car superstore. Ford tried that concept early in the 1980s with the ABC pilot program. It was a fiasco.
"I'm not surprisedpulled the plug and closed their superstores, because franchises dealers have the best sources for pre-owned vehicles and know how to keep costs in line."
Ironically,runs the Rochester pilot, of which it owns 51% and Ford, 49%. Ford sales plunged in the upstate New York city in 1999 and trailed Chevrolet substantially - a far cry from national trends.
Brian P. Kelley, 39, a former sales vice-president for General Electric's Appliance Division, succeeded Mr. Roberts as overseer of FICO in his capacity as president of Ford subsidiary ConsumerConnect.
This entity implements and develops new distribution strategies and e-commerce initiatives.
Mr. Kelley has put on hold the potential of establishing more Ford Collections.
Mr. Roberts says, "The market is changing, what with the consolidators and the Internet, and we don't believe it's right or legal to tell dealers they can't sell to us if we're the only buyer available or tell consumers they can't buy cars from stores we may happen to own.
"In Hartford, CT, we resolved an overdealering situation by acquiring dealers that cut the total there from 14 to seven, and in Providence, RI, we bought two dealers. It's just plain wrong not to let us help reduce overfranchising in urban markets."
Mr. Roberts, a native of Gainesville, TX, was to the dealer world born. His father ran a British Leyland dealership in Norman, OK, and then a Studebaker store in Oklahoma City.
Married for 33 years, Donna and Ross have three children and he's taking time off before deciding what to do about "not staying idle."
Asked whether he might do a "Jim Perkins," his one-time competitor at the helm of Chevrolet who now heads up the Hendrick megadealer group in Charlotte, NC, Mr. Roberts smiles and says that's "one option."
Otherwise he has no plans to return to business in an active role.
A second option, he agreed, was doing a "Ben Bidwell," his former boss in Ford sales, who in retirement joined the boards of directors ofAutomotive, a dealer consolidator based in Houston and of the Kelly Automotive Group, which has dealers in southeastern Pennsylvania and Jacksonville, FL.
Mr. Bidwell and Mr. Roberts live two doors apart in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, MI, and have known each other since the early 1960s.
"I've worked all over the country, starting in Dallas, and going on to Houston, New York, Louisville and L.A.," says Mr. Roberts. "I know most of our dealers. They're a great bunch, and I'm sure we'll stay in touch."