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New president of Ford Division preaches back to basics philosophy

New president of Ford Division preaches back to basics philosophy

Automotive News

It's no surprise that Ford Motor Co. chose Steve Lyons as the new president of Ford Division.

Lyons, a low-key team member of former bosses Ross Roberts and Jim O'Connor, is rooted in the heady 1990s, when Ford Division was the undisputed sales king in the United States.

"There aren't going to be any surprises," Lyons said when asked his agenda. "Let's get back to the fundamentals."

For now, the fundamentals mean building inventories and using more regional incentives to boost sales.

Lyons, 53, named Ford Division president last month, is a pivotal player in Ford Motor's most critical arena: restoring profits to North American automotive operations. He must regain Ford Division market share, maintain a flow of new product, foster peace with more than 4,000 dealers and fight a cutthroat incentive war.

As Ford Motor plans its third-quarter production schedule, Lyons wants every assembly plant supplying Ford Division, except those producing the Ford Focus and Windstar, to run at maximum capacity.

"If there is one thing we have been guilty of since last year, it is under-calling the industry," Lyons said. "I have made a pledge to my people and my dealers that we are going to err on the aggressive side for a while. If there is any reasonable chance of selling it, we ought not to let any production sit."

Through the first four months of this year, Ford Division's sales declined 10.1 percent from the same period of last year, to 944,732 units. Its U.S. market share fell to 17.5 percent, vs. 19.2 percent a year ago.

General Motors is spending heavily to gain market share. Korean automakers are capturing entry-level buyers. Ford Motor, struggling to overcome a $5.45 billion loss last year, is trying to shake a reputation for declining vehicle quality and botched product launches.

Lyons' comeback agenda sits well with dealers, who know him well. After spending his first 10 years at Ford in truck engineering and product planning, he accepted a "temporary assignment" in truck marketing at Ford Division in 1982. "The shoe fit," Lyons said. "I wanted to go out to the field organization and learn the sales side of the business."

For the next 20 years, Lyons worked his way up Ford Motor's sales organization, in regional sales districts, as advertising manager and general marketing manager at Lincoln Mercury, and as general marketing manager and general sales manager at Ford Division.

He was promoted to president of the division when O'Connor was made group vice president for North American marketing, sales and service.

Said Ralph Seekins, chairman of the Ford Division National Dealer Council: "He is a soldier. He has never taken the limelight.'' Seekins owns Seekins Ford-Lincoln-Mercury in Fairbanks, Alaska.

In the short term, the redesigned 2003 Ford Expedition bowing this spring will boost Ford Division's fortunes, Lyons said. Sales to commercial and daily rental fleets will rebound this year as the economy strengthens, he said.

More extensive use of regional incentives will better target customers, lifting sales and vehicle profit margins, he said. "I am very much a believer in regional incentives."

Longer term, Ford Division will gain 45,000 Ford Escape models in 2003, when the company adds a second assembly site.

And the division is considering an entry-level vehicle selling below the Ford Focus to capture young first-time buyers now courted by Korean manufacturers.

"We would like to have something," Lyons said of the entry-level market. "We have not reached any conclusion or consensus on what that might be."

Lyons takes over a dealer body that Seekins describes as "the most vocal" in the United States.

Acrimony over Ford Motor's foray into automotive retailing and e-commerce is abating. Relations between the dealer council and the factory are less contentious than during the tenure of Jacques Nasser,who was ousted as CEO in October 2001.

Nonetheless, Seekins said that "continuing an open dialogue with dealers and allowing free input on issues that affect dealers" is Lyons' biggest challenge.

"Steve doesn't like to pussyfoot around issues, and neither do I," Seekins said. "He is direct."

Seekins credits Lyons with helping to craft manageable performance standards for Ford Division's Blue Oval dealership certification program.

"He initiated discussions with us," Seekins said. "He did not come in and say, 'This is the way it is going to be.' Instead, he asked what is a reasonable objective, given our demographics, which includes 65-year-old-buyers and 24-year-old Focus owners."

Lyons plans no changes in the Blue Oval certification program, which has triggered some dealer protest. "The results speak for themselves," he said, citing improvements in customer relations.

Lyons said his years in the field and in executive jobs at Ford Division serve him well in his new post.

"The dealers know who I am,'' he said. "They know I value them. We can communicate," he said. "The source of knowledge is not in Dearborn. It is out there getting closer to the customers. That is my working philosophy."

My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.

My next Ford.....
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