2000 should set record despite Firestone recall and uneasiness about Blue Oval

LAS VEGAS - Sitting amid the new and hopped-up Ford vehicles in his company's SEMA exhibit, it's easy for Ford Div. President Jim O'Connor to be optimistic, even at the end of a year marred by one of the worst customer-satisfaction crises since the Pinto.

Despite the Firestone tire recall on millions of Explorers, Mr. O'Connor thinks his division has a shot at yet another record sales year.

And with several new products hitting showroom floors in 2001, he believes next year will be a banner year for Ford as well.

"We'll have a full year of the Explorer Sport Trac," he says. "We'll have a full year of the new Explorer Sport. A new Explorer will be out in early 2001 as a 2002 model, which is going to be a wonderful vehicle."

The list goes on: A new Thunderbird, a new SVT F-150 Lightning, a modified Harley-Davidson edition F-150 and a full year of the small SUV Escape.

"Escape is going to help margins because it's going to be much more successful than Contour from our Kansas City plant," says Mr. O'Connor. "We've already got 70,000 orders, so half of the year is already sold."

Although the Firestone recall, which Mr. O'Connor expected to be completed in late November, was thought by most to be a disaster for both Ford and the tire manufacturer, Mr. O'Connor minimizes Ford's role.

"Any time you have loss of life with any issue, it's a concern," he says. "All of our data clearly, clearly shows it's not a vehicle issue, it's not an Explorer issue. It's a Firestone tire issue on this batch of tires.

"We believe they make world-class tires in everything else. I have 16-inch Firestones on my Explorer. They're a great supplier. They always have been. We're just going through a bad patch."

Explorer, he says, has been a market leader with millions of owners on the road. He looks at the recall as an opportunity to continue a dialogue with those customers.

"It's a wonderful opportunity to say to your customers, `Have you replaced the tires? We're happy to do that. Do you want to bring it in so we can inspect it for you, check your air pressure?' It's a great opportunity just to talk to the consumer again."

Other Ford developments that made news in 2000 will come to pass in 2001. One is Ford Direct.com, a direct buying service co-owned by Ford and its dealers. The other is the much-debated Blue Oval dealer certification program.

"I think what Ford Direct will do is help us to capitalize on that 2 or 3 or 4 or 5% that wants to buy direct," says Mr. O'Connor. "What it'll do is really force our retailers to get much more e-commerce literate, much more responsive, much more product savvy."

Ford's Blue Oval program didn't have as much initial dealer acceptance as Ford Direct. Many dealers say it's unfair and is set up to give preferential treatment to large affluent stores.

Not so, says Mr. O'Connor.

"On August 22 we got the National Dealer Council to support it," he says. "We got the executive committee of the National Dealer Council to unanimously support it. And the smaller dealers, the select dealer sub-committee, unanimously support it."

Mr. O'Connor says that all Blue Oval does is ask for standards that already are in the dealers' sales agreement, and that the company hadn't been very disciplined about demanding them in the first place.

"Most dealers will say to you privately that there isn't anything in there now that doesn't make sense," he says. "There are several other brands that have a similar type of incentive-based customer satisfaction program. There's a lot of focus on Blue Oval because we're the market leader and we have broader cross section of dealers around the country."