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Old 02-02-2003, 21:00   #1 (permalink)
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Ford tries to fix dealer rift

He apologizes at dealer convention for alienation
February 3, 2003
BY JEFFREY MCCRACKEN
DETROIT FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO -- There he was, the head of Ford Motor Co., walking the exhibit floor, shaking hands with auto dealers, and stopping to answer questions or exchange jokes.

Ford dealers haven't been a happy group -- even ranking the automaker below a dying rival brand -- so William Clay Ford Jr. had work to do.

Later Saturday afternoon, he delivered a plea -- an apology in many ways -- for thinking his business could do the job better than they do. In response, the dealers gave his namesake company a 100th birthday cake.

Ford Motor Co.'s chairman and chief executive officer made his first appearance at the annual National Automotive Dealers Association convention this weekend, in effect to say he's sorry for all the things Ford has done during the last few years to alienate and antagonize its 4,500 Ford, Lincoln and Mercury dealers nationwide.

Dealer anger at Ford took its most public form last month with a NADA survey in which Ford's dealers ranked the automaker even below General Motors Corp.'s Oldsmobile division in dealer satisfaction -- pretty stunning since GM is killing off Olds in 2004. The only other domestic nameplates ranked worse in the survey: Ford's Lincoln and Mercury, which came up 33rd and 34th among 34 brands.

The survey, one of many in which dealers blasted the automaker, seems to have embarrassed the man and the company.

"In the 1990s, some of us thought we could do a better job. We learned the hard way we were wrong," said Ford in his keynote speech Saturday at the NADA convention, which has drawn about 25,000 people. "We do a lot better when we cooperate than when we compete. We've committed ourselves to strengthening our ties with our dealers."

His speech was peppered with good words for dealers. He called them critical to Ford's success and said he owed dealers a special thanks for the work they do for Ford, Lincoln and Mercury, plus other Ford brands like Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo.

Ford, his cousin and fellow board member Edsel Ford II; Chief Financial Officer Allan Gilmour; Jim O'Connor, group vice president of Ford North America, and the heads of Ford's various brands are all in San Francisco to meet and greet dealers. Ford Chief Operating Officer Nick Scheele was scheduled to attend, but canceled due to a death in his family.

It's a showing of support that Ford hadn't made in previous years at NADA or other dealer events, say Ford's dealers.

"I'm seeing lots of sincerity from them. I think they are trying extremely hard to mend fences with us," said Allen Hall, a Ford/Lincoln/Mercury dealer in White River Junction, Vt. "That dealer survey was like a bad report card. No one likes to get one of them. It's great to have Bill Ford -- the captain of the ship -- here to talk to us."

Ford's move a few years ago to have company-owned dealerships that would compete with independent dealers like Hall angered him and others. Ford also ventured into oil changes, lube jobs and other repair work that dealers do and want to expand. There was also an Internet sales push that threatened dealers.

Further grating was the fact that many of those moves came with little or no dealer input.

"The thing was, you felt like they told you one thing and did another," said Jack Kain, a Ford dealer near Lexington, Ky., for 42 years. "I feel like having Bill here has helped. They are actually asking our opinion on things. The meetings this weekend have been really positive, the most positive they've been in a few years."

The most recent flare-up was in November, when the company proposed reducing payments that had been promised to dealers who met the mandates of Ford's Blue Oval certification program. Ford reversed itself in December following massive dealer outrage.

"We are trying to rebuild that trust. You don't just pull down a curtain, pull it up and they are happy with you," O'Connor said. "It takes action like us coming to this convention to rebuild a relationship with dealers."
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