Three Ford dealers in Albuquerque, NM, formed their own co-operative, and are presenting an alternative to other strategies.

The three Ford dealers, anxious to remain competitive but achieve economies of scale in non-competing areas, formed the Zia Automobile Group.

It's billed as an alternative to Ford's beleaguered Collection plan.

The automaker took two months to approve the group. One of its goals is to "do-it-ourselves" before a consolidator or the automaker came into the fast-growing New Mexico metropolis.

The group has raised sales volume and profits from 1998 and already is benefiting from cost reductions in accounting, advertising and titling, with a substantial cut expected from either Ford Credit or other floorplan lenders when inventories are merged.

"Zia is not about giving up the competitive edge between us - Rich Richardson Ford, Bob Turner Ford and my Don Chalmers Ford," says Mr. Chalmers, the chief executive of Zia.

He adds, "We have reputations to protect, and customers who want to know we're still in place and there's no 'Ford Collection' or 'AutoNation' on the sign."

Mr. Turner opened a new $9 million building this fall, while Mr. Richardson, a 79-year-old whose Albuquerque general manager is Ken Blewitt, plans to open a satellite store in the suburb of Edgewood, NM. Zia's central computer will be fully operational for all three members Jan. 1.