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Mr Fixit rolls up his sleeves
By Joshua Dowling
The Sydney Morning Herald
Tuesday July 20 2004
Geoff Polites, the former boss of Ford Australia, is relishing his biggest challenge in Europe, reports Joshua Dowling.
As the boss of Ford Australia, Geoff Polites fixed the Falcon, got the company back into motorsport in a big way and pushed it to build a vehicle to cash in on the four-wheel-drive boom. After five years, Polites handed the keys of Ford Australia to American Tom Gorman, while Polites headed for a senior position within Ford of Europe, based in Cologne in northern Germany.
Drive caught up with Polites after his first 100 days in his new job to find out if he was enjoying the move -- and how much he missed his beloved Sydney Swans, the team for which he was once a selector.
How's your German going?
It's coming along slowly. The bottom line is I just don't know enough vocabulary. So I'm building that up. I have a couple of lessons a week.
Is it hard to communicate at work?
Not at all. All the work is done in English. We've got a Polish guy running Poland and a Hungarian running Hungary and a Greek running Greece and an Italian running Italy, so when we have a managing directors' meeting, English is the only language we can all communicate in. English truly is the international language.
How was your first week in the new job?
It's like any new job, you always suffer from information overload; you arrive and you know nothing. And it's more acute here because I know nothing about Ford of Europe. I've always worked in Australia and, when I went from being a dealer and then back to Ford Australia, it was in a market where I knew the players, knew the issues and knew the product. Here, I don't know any of the players or the products or the issues. It's a very steep learning curve and I'm still on it to be honest.
How is your wife Linda coping with the move?
Well, it's a bigger challenge for her than it is for me. I come to work all day ... but the move for her is a huge shock, so she's probably doing it personally tougher than I am, but she's coping.
Has she started learning German yet?
She hasn't started yet but she's about to. The problem is because so many Germans speak English, she can communicate and make herself understood mostly in English. So there's not huge pressure to learn.
You have quite a responsibility trying to turn Ford of Europe around. Is it a bigger challenge than you expected?
Like all of the manufacturers in Europe, Ford is under pressure. The market's tough, particularly in Germany where we are. There is growth in Eastern Europe and this year the British market is rocketing along, as are Spain and pockets of Italy. In Europe, the dynamics of the industry are changing. Once upon a time, the German manufacturers dominated Germany and the French manufacturers dominated France and the Italian manufacturers dominated Italy. But there's less and less loyalty to the domestic brands now. Add to that Toyota, which is happy to grow at half a percent a year for the next 10 years and they've got to take that off somebody. So we're all fighting our traditional battle grounds but you're also fighting against the new manufacturers, mainly the Japanese. The Japanese are a lot further behind in Europe than they are in Australia. Toyota has been a major market player in Australia for the past 20 years but in Europe it only represents 4.5 percent of the market. But Toyota being Toyota, you know at some point in time that's all going to change.
What exactly does your new job involve?
I'm in charge of operations. So I've got programming, distribution, market representation and pricing. A whole lot of stuff. One of my responsibilities is market representation and that's an area where I think we've got a lot of work to do, making sure we've got the right dealers in the right places. We've got issues in cities like Paris and Stockholm. The cost of real estate in some of these cities is kind of like the downtown Sydney problem, so I suppose in that sense I'm uniquely qualified to look at that, having been the downtown Sydney dealer in a company-owned facility. No dealer can afford to own the facility themselves.
Is your new job harder than being the boss of Ford Australia?
Different. It's not like the traditional dealer relationships we have in Australia, there are more extremes. In the UK, you deal a lot more with dealers run by large companies. But in Germany and the rest of Europe, you deal with normal owner-operator dealers. But, going forward, there is going to be a consolidation. The big are getting bigger. From next year, once you're a Ford dealer you can open up anywhere you like in Europe. It's called Block Exemption. And it means that provided you meet the company's standards you can open up across the road from another dealer.
No. We don't expect anyone to be silly about it but the big groups who are going well and who see an opportunity somewhere, can just go and build a dealership. In Germany, the cities aren't that big. Eighty percent of the German people live in cities where the population is under 300,000. There are little villages everywhere so you have a greater number of smaller dealers. Across all brands, there are as many dealers in Germany -- 22,000 -- as there are in the US. The German market is about 3 million cars a year and the US market is about 16.5 million cars per year. It doesn't take long to figure out that the economies of scale just aren't there.
Are you glad you made the move?
(Laughs) Oh yeah, it's a good thing to do, I think. I don't know about good for the career ... (laughs). I think it was a good time for me and a good time for Ford Australia and I think it's important that whoever is there at Ford Australia, they've got to take it through for the next three or four years because there are serious product decisions that need to be made [new Falcon] and I think the person who makes those decisions is the person who should implement them, just as I did with the BA Falcon and Ford Territory. When I left, it was the right time for the next person to take over.
Is an American the right person to be making such important decisions, given that it takes time to learn about a new market, such as Australia?
Yes, because he's got a team that understands the Australian market perfectly. It's the same team I had and, as the boss, you don't make all the decisions yourself. If you do, you're kidding yourself and I'm sure Tom's not kidding himself, he's a smart guy.
Do you have regular contact with your successor or any other people at Ford Australia?
No, once you're gone, you're gone. I speak to my son Brent from time to time, who works there in the marketing department, but that's about it.
Given that you had such a role in getting Ford back into motorsport in a big way, do you keep track of the V8 Supercar results?
I get the results. I log onto the internet and the Stone Brothers Racing team email their press releases, so I'm right up to date. And both my sons are keen followers of the sport, so they keep me posted.
Have you found a way to watch your beloved Sydney Swans?
The Swans send me a tape every week and I listen to the games on the internet when I can. We're eight hours behind, so if it's a night game, it's relatively easy because it's lunchtime here. Afternoon games are between 5am and 7am, so I usually listen to the last half of those games.
What do you do in your down time?
I bought a cross-trainer pushbike and Linda and I go pottering up and down the River Rhine on the weekends. There are a lot of cycle paths here and the cities are set out so you can easily get around on a pushbike. We live five minutes away from downtown Cologne and only 700 metres from the Rhine, so it's easy to get to places by pushbike. With daylight saving, it's still light until 10.30 or 10.45 at night, so there's plenty of time to relax after work. In the peak of summer, you can go to bed while it's light, which is unusual.
You used to have a new Ford Falcon GT as your company car in Australia. What do you drive in Europe?
I've got a petrol Mondeo at the moment but it's due to be replaced shortly, so I'm going to get the new diesel. I've not owned a diesel before, so I'm keen to better understand that. And then, when the new Focus arrives, I'll drive one of them. I've had a few drives and it really is a fun little car to drive, so I'll get one of them.
Do you enjoy driving on the autobahns?
What's tricky is not all sections are unlimited. They vary from unrestricted down to 100 and if you miss that sign, you can find yourself in a bit of trouble. There are a lot of speed cameras as you come off the autobahns. There is one road that goes from Cologne to Bonn, the 555, and it is unrestricted all the way and you can be sitting on 180kmh and some guy will just blow past.
Finally, you're very attached to your dog, did it make the journey?
No, and that's a sore point. He's in Australia. Linda doesn't want to put him through the 24-hour flight and there is also the issue of who will look after him when she goes back to Australia to visit. But I still hold a hope that we'll get him here. He's a treacherous little dog, he's bonded to Linda's sister. Loyalty is not one of his strong points.