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Old 10-28-2004, 07:31   #1 (permalink)
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US:Automaker 'back in the fight,' Ford says

Automaker 'back in the fight,' Ford says

CEO sees success in turnaround of morale

BY JAMIE BUTTERS
DETROIT FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER

Ford Motor Co. employees have been through a lot over the last few years, but they can see the company's strategy is working and is "back in the fight," Chairman and CEO Bill Ford told the Free Press in an interview Wednesday.

"I sense, actually, kind of a renewed confidence," Ford said. "That doesn't mean they aren't tired and stressed out and maybe in some cases even slightly burned out. But I actually think people are feeling pretty good about where we're headed."

Three years after taking over as chief executive officer of the automaker his great-grandfather founded 101 years ago, Bill Ford says he believes he has the people, the products and the experience needed to shepherd the company through a viciously competitive industry and an unhelpful economy.

Not everyone agrees with his rosy assessment.

Respected industry experts who advise investors on where to put their money doubt the automaker's ability to meet its goal of earning $7 billion before taxes by 2006. They don't think the automotive business can make up the difference when Ford Credit quits making record profits. They doubt whether Jaguar, Land Rover and other luxury brands can pull their weight. At least one has warned that unless Ford regains some of its share of the U.S. car and truck market -- which has fallen below 19 percent from almost 25 percent just six years ago -- the automaker will likely have to close more assembly plants.

But Bill Ford has sought to define the company under his leadership as one that under-promises and over-delivers. And he plans to keep surprising the doubters.

"They've been wrong for three straight years. I hope their streak continues for a fourth year," he said.

Where outsiders may see a shrinking company pinched between GM's price-cutting and Asian rivals' growth, Bill Ford sees a string of successes:

•Pretax profits improving by more than $12 billion from a $7.6 billion pre-tax loss in 2001 to a pre-tax profit of $5.2 billion so far in 2004.

•Only Jaguar is losing money now, compared with six of Ford's eight automotive units when he took over.

•Several successful new-model launches that position the company to regain some market share -- and do so profitably. "We're back in the fight," he said.

Last year, the focus was on the new F-150 full-size pickup, the single most important vehicle in Ford's lineup.

But 2004 presented even bigger challenges, as the company introduced the GT supercar, the giant F-Series SuperDuty trucks, the Five Hundred sedan, the Freestyle crossover wagon, the gas-electric hybrid Escape SUV and the Mustang sports car -- and that's just for the Ford brand.

"If you add it all up, this year was a more complex year," Ford said.

It also meant more pressure on workers.

The biggest surprise over his three years at the helm of the company, Ford said, is how much of his time is taken up by personnel issues.

But now it seems like a natural thing, he said.

"I think anytime somebody's in a leadership position, whether it's a football coach, whether it's a general, whether it's a CEO, it always boils down to people issues," Ford said.

He's gratified that employee-satisfaction surveys show that progress is being made. Joe Laymon, his group vice president for human resources, declined to share specific statistics Wednesday afternoon, because he won't present them to the company's leadership until next month after they have been more fully analyzed.

But the trend is undeniable, Laymon said, as it runs through manufacturing, sales and marketing, and product development.

"Employee satisfaction numbers are up in every major functional group" in North America, Laymon said.

He attributed the continued improvement to the return of 401(k) matches and modest bonuses, as well as the consistent implementation of a strategy to become a stronger, if smaller, company.

"There's a sense of winning, a sense of excitement and hope ... A confidence that I don't think we've seen in awhile" in employee focus groups, Laymon said.

While trying to keep efforts focused and spirits high -- which Ford likened to "herding cats" -- he also has other things to deal with that are beyond his control.

•Steel prices have been a concern, but he noted they are starting to come down as China's economic growth has slowed a bit.

•Health care will be a major issue for U.S. automakers. Vice Chairman Allan Gilmour and others have no answer. "We're not ready to offer any solutions. ... For every good idea, there are, like, three 'omigods,' " Ford said.

•Oil prices may come down a little, but not for the long run, so expect more gas-electric hybrids and even hydrogen-powered vehicles. "We're building our plans going forward on oil being a finite resource and a scarce resource," he said.

•On health care or other issues, the industry will not be shaken by who wins Tuesday's election. "I think we'll be able to work with whoever's in there." Even if it's President Nader.

Yes, Bill Ford is relaxed enough to make jokes.

The company's stock -- much of which is held by himself and his family -- has taken some hits, but if he keeps growing profits, he is confident that it will all work out.

"All I can do is keep delivering the results," he said.

He knows what his team can do -- and what it can't. If it takes the rest of the world another year or two to believe in them, then so be it.

"Don't get me wrong. I hate picking up the paper every month and seeing 'Ford loses share.' I hate it. I'm competitive.

"But it was part of the plan.

"Now, however, we have new products out there, and starting in the next few months ... the retail share number will start to turn around. ... We're back in the fight."
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