Ford marketing exec brings global view across the pond
Earl Hesterberg aims to be the voice of the customer and dealer in new post.
By Eric Mayne / The Detroit News
Todd McInturf / The Detroit News
Earl Hesterberg was chosen from several candidates to fill the shoes of Jim O'Connor, a commanding presence within the Ford organization for 40 years before he retired in October.
Title: Ford Motor Co. group vice president, North America marketing, sales and service
Personal: Married to wife, Susan, for 28 years; two sons and a daughter, ages 15-21
Education: Bachelor's degree from Davidson College in North Carolina; MBA from Xavier in Cincinnati
Career: Joined Ford in 1975, went to Nissan from 1982 to 1997 and left Nissan to become president of Gulf States Toyota. Rejoined Ford in 1999.
First car: "Unfortunately, my first car was a '69 Camaro. That was my sister's car and I inherited it. They used to make 'em in Cincinnati. I gave it to my brother-in-law when I got my first company car at Ford."
DEARBORN -- He collects Bordeaux wines, speaks German and follows the kind of football played without helmets.
So when Earl Hesterberg, Ford of Europe's marketing and sales chief for the past five years, was named the new head of marketing, sales and service for Ford's North America operations, some employees on this side of the pond viewed him as just another Euro-exec landing in the upper reaches of Dearborn's brass.
In recent years, no fewer than nine European executives have arrived here to take high-level posts. Slightly bewildered, Hesterberg laughed off the European label. "I'm from Cincinnati," said the 52-year-old married father of three.
But Hesterberg does bring a global viewpoint to one of the toughest jobs in Detroit -- selling Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles in the take-no-prisoners North American market. Car companies are offering record-setting rebates and bringing dozens of new vehicles to market in an all-out bid to increase market share.
Before joining Ford, he worked 16 years at Japan-based Nissan Motor Co., which included a stint as the automaker's European vice president of sales.
He tries to immerse himself in the markets he serves because he needs to be "frequently the voice of the customer and the dealer. So I have to be connected."
Skeptics say he'll need this level of dedication, plus a healthy measure of creativity, to succeed in his new job.
Sales of Ford, Lincoln and Mercury products were down last year compared with 2003, and the blue oval brand -- despite being the nation's top seller -- has lost market share every year since 1995. And maintaining good relations with Ford's 4,000 dealers, while pushing them to improve sales and service, is always a high-wire act.
Hesterberg has faced his share of tough challenges.
"He came to Europe at a difficult time," said Gordon Seymour, managing director of Gordons of Bolton, a large Ford dealership near Manchester, England. "Now, as he leaves, we move back into profit."
Under Hesterberg, Ford of Europe's automotive operations earned $114 million last year, up from a $1.1 billion loss in 2003. And by the end of 2004, Ford's share of the Western European market had risen to 11.1 percent from 10.5 percent in 2000.
The indefatigable Hesterberg visited at least one dealer "damn near every day" in a bid to boost sales, Seymour said. ."
Such intensity caught the eye of Jim Padilla, Ford's president and chief operating officer. Five years ago, Padilla was in Spain to conduct a technical review of Ford's manufacturing processes. Hesterberg wasn't invited but showed up anyway.
"He said, 'Listen, you're my delivery stream for product. I want to know what your strategy is,'" Padilla said. "This guy takes an enterprise view. He's not just a sales guy."
Hesterberg was chosen from several candidates to fill the shoes of Jim O'Connor, a commanding presence within the Ford organization for 40 years before he retired in October.
"I won't say there was a lot of debate," Padilla said. "There were alternatives, and they were fairly evaluated."
In his final year on the job, O'Connor blazed an important trail for Hesterberg, mending fences between Ford and its dealer network. Their relationship was damaged by programs such as Blue Oval Certified, which rewarded dealers who met Ford standards, and the automaker's aborted attempt to purchase and run dealerships.
Hesterberg still faces myriad challenges, not the least of which is managing incentives. The company wants to win back lost sales without giving away the store in incentives or dumping a high number of vehicles in rental fleets. "We'll never let our dealers get uncompetitive," Hesterberg said, but neither does he plan to match every deal General Motors Corp. throws on the table.
Critics say Ford's marketing message needs to be sharper.
"We're in a market right now that requires advertising to be fairly high-energy," said Art Spinella of Oregon-based CNW Marketing Research. "On the truck side, Ford has been fairly decent and fairly successful. On the car side, quite honestly, it's been pretty bland with the exception of Mustang."
In large part, Hesterberg's success will ride on the quality and appeal of the automaker's new car offerings. "You can change slogans, but at the end of the day you've got to have the product," said Erich Merkle, senior auto analyst with IRN Inc.
Those who know Hesterberg say he's likely to keep at it until he succeeds. His mentor, 80-year-old former Ford marketing executive Roy Knipper, recalls using a red pencil to make corrections on the young Hesterberg's reports.
After he retired, Knipper received a letter from his former charge. "When you finish redoing this letter," Hesterberg wrote, "please send it back to me and I'll rework it."