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US:Bill Ford retains family's support

Bill Ford retains family's support

North American product chief Elena Ford says automaker will weather finances


NEW YORK -- Blood still runs thicker than red ink at Ford Motor Co.

Elena A. Ford, director of North American product marketing, planning and strategy for Ford, said the Ford family still has full faith in her cousin, chairman and chief executive Bill Ford.

So, despite a $2.1-billion year-to-date pretax loss in the company's North American operations, a loss that's expected to cause plant closures and other cutbacks early next year, the Fords are standing by their own.

"The family is 1,000% behind Bill," Elena Ford said while dining with journalists at a New York restaurant Tuesday night to promote the launch of the Lincoln Zephyr luxury sedan.

Anxiety and fear gripped many workers at the 102-year-old company last week after Bill Ford said a restructuring will come in January and "there will be sacrifices asked of people throughout our company, from top to bottom."

But Elena Ford -- one of the top women in the auto industry and the only other Ford to be actively involved in daily operations at the publicly traded company that's still closely held by the family -- said the difficulty Ford Motor confronts heading into 2006 is not nearly as dire as it was four years ago.

After the company lost $5.5 billion in 2001, Bill Ford announced a sweeping restructuring plan that eliminated more than 20,000 jobs and called for closing five plants and idling other facilities. The plan aimed to cut at least $4 billion in costs, but Ford insiders worried there weren't enough new cars and trucks in the product pipeline to help lift even the lighter company.

This time around, Elena Ford said, it's not that bad.

For one, the company continues to be profitable. It earned $1.9 billion for the first nine months of the year, despite the losses in the North American operations. While that is down from $3.4 billion in earnings a year ago, the automaker does expect to end the year in the black.

What's more, she said, "Four years ago, we didn't have hardly any products."

Today, as the executive who oversees the product pipeline, Elena Ford self-assuredly declared: "It's solid."

and, she added, "It's not just one or two products ... We're not stopping."

The first woman and first fifth-generation Ford to take on a management job at the company, lately Elena Ford is emboldened by the success of the once-sliding Mercury brand.

She helped rebuild it over several years while moving through various jobs in the Lincoln-Mercury division.

Between 1998 and 2003, sales of the Mercury brand plummeted more than half, to 200,000 cars and trucks. But for the first nine months of this year, sales of Mercury vehicles are up 7.5% compared with the same period a year ago.

As a Ford family member Elena Ford has a way of garnering more media attention than some of her superiors and, sometimes, the new cars and trucks. It's a situation that appears awkward. For her part, Elena Ford is modest, enthusiastic and focused on the vehicles.

She played a key role in bringing new products and a new, more feminine, marketing image a struggling brand that has had difficulty finding its way between the mainstream Ford and luxury Lincoln bookend brands.

Mercury got a new tagline, New Doors Opened, and music from pop star Paula Cole.

And now Elena Ford says the same strategy will be brought to the Lincoln brand, with the launch of the Zephyr, an understated premium sedan that starts at $29,660.

The Lincoln brand has a new tagline, Reach Higher, and a stable of new products waiting in the wings.

"You're going to see the same idea," she said of the plans for the Lincoln makeover.

Marcos Oliveira, who oversees product development for medium and large cars, said the new Zephyr achieves a delicate balance between high-end taste and ostentation, giving entry-level luxury buyers more of what they're looking for.

"People appreciate that," Oliveira said.

Elena Ford said the product pipeline at Ford is full of promise.

She rattled off a list of new vehicles the automaker unleashed in the marketplace recently, such as the Ford Fusion sedan, Ford Explorer SUV, and Lincoln Zephyr.

She got downright ecstatic while talking about the potential for the hybrid gasoline-electric version of the Mercury Mariner, a small crossover coming to market. It will be an order-in-advance product for some time, she reported happily.

Some exciting undisclosed vehicles are in the pipeline too, she added.

"There's a lot more to come," Elena Ford said.

During a daylong event to promote the new Zephyr, Ford Motor executives also showed journalists the exterior of the next-generation Lincoln Aviator, which is slated to go on sale next fall.

Peter Horbury, executive director of design for North America, said the new Aviator moves away from its truck-ish SUV origins just as consumer tastes are shifting toward more economical vehicles.

The new Aviator has a sleeker, smaller crossover-like look, and it has a new grille reminiscent of a fine metal link bracelet.

"This car represents the new wave," he said.

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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