PHOENIX — Participants in Ford Motor Co.'s new minority dealer initiative will undertake five years of post-graduate college studies in dealership management.

The goal is for as many of them as possible to end up running their own dealer-ships.

Ford leads the industry in the number of minority dealers (360, about 7% of Ford's dealer base), but is looking to add more. The new program, in conjunction with Arizona State University, aims to do that with qualified candidates who hold advanced college business degrees.

Ford's Minority Dealer Operations will oversee the new effort, called the Automotive Dealership Education Program for Minorities (ADEPM).

Ford will select ADEPM candidates from Arizona State graduates with degrees in business or marketing — and with certificates from a new university dealership management program designed with Ford's input.

The certificate program is open to ASU business and marketing majors. They undergo auto industry-specific training and schooling that includes seminars, classes and summer internships.

Dr. Linda Brock-Nelson, a former dealer and a member of the advisory board that helped develop the certificate program, believes the advantages extend beyond minority development, and will help all dealerships.

She says the biggest problem for dealers today is that “people applying for dealership positions are under-qualified.

“And many of those employees that progress through promotion don't even understand what a financial statement is.

“Blending a bachelor degree that teaches finance, marketing and accounting with automotive retail training will develop people with the advanced skill sets necessary to manage dealerships today.”

Minority students picked for the ADEPM post-graduate program will spend considerable time working at a dealership.

Eric Jenkins, an African-American Lincoln-Mercury dealer in Louisiana who has completed aspects of Ford's dealer development program, says, “These students have a great opportunity to learn automotive retailing in a controlled environment.”

Program graduates can apply for financial assistance in which Ford will loan up to 90% of the investment capital necessary for a dealership purchase.

About 40 students a year will go through the ADEPM program, says George Frame, Ford's Executive Director of Dealer Development.

He isn't sure how many will ultimate own dealerships.

“We will have to manage the process carefully because we'll need to find those investment opportunities.”

Such opportunities are becoming increasingly rare as dealership consolidations and reductions continue. But Frame has a wider vision.

“As we developed this program, I came away thinking, ‘I can't lose with this.’”

He says that students who don't end up owning their own dealerships will probably end up throughout the auto industry — including management positions at auto companies.

“We'll be developing employees who understand what it means to be a car dealer, and that can only help Ford. Also, we want to make diversity throughout Ford one of our strengths.”