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Old 05-13-2004, 12:30   #1 (permalink)
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USA:Ford tells shareholders turnaround is on track

Ford tells shareholders turnaround is on track

Reuters / May 13, 2004

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Ford Motor Co., basking in the glow of stronger-than-expected first-quarter earnings, told shareholders on Thursday that it was on track with the turnaround plan it launched more than two years ago.

"Overall we're real pleased with our progress so far," Bill Ford, the automaker's CEO, told the annual shareholder meeting in Louisville's historic Seelbach Hotel, saying the company's earnings had improved by about $5 billion in the last two years.

"We're really proud of the results our team has delivered," he added, saying billions of dollars in additional cost reductions by the end of the decade and plans to become "much more aggressive" in the fast-growing Asia-Pacific market should deliver strong results for the No. 2 U.S. automaker going forward.

The family scion, whose great-grandfather Henry Ford founded the company, drew applause from stockholders when he noted that Ford's January-March profit marked its "best quarter" since it began a massive restructuring program in January 2002.

Ford's net earnings more than doubled to $1.95 billion, or 94 cents a share, in the first quarter, far exceeding Wall Street estimates. The results also beat those at its archrival General Motors for the first time in three years.

Bill Ford drew some hard-hitting comments as well as cheers from the crowd of 170 shareholders, however.

"It seems like our market share is in a death spiral," said stockholder Richard Mills, who noted that Ford's key U.S. market share has dropped alarmingly while its corporate debt rating remains near junk status.

Mills and perennial shareholder activist Evelyn Davis spoke against several corporate governance and investment issues at Ford, and environmental activists questioned Bill Ford's often professed commitment to environmental issues given his company's dependence on large SUVs for most of its automotive profit in North America.

But Ford, looking more relaxed and sure of himself than at other shareholder meetings since he ousted former CEO Jacques Nasser in October 2001, seemed unfazed by the sometimes aggressive comments.

"Over 50 percent of our R&D spending is on environmental issues," he told the crowd after Jason Mark, from the San Francisco environmental group Global Exchange, accused him of building "outdated and inefficient gas guzzlers."

While noting Ford's successes since he pulled it back from what many analysts saw as the brink of financial collapse less than two years ago, Bill Ford acknowledged the company still has a long way to go before its meets its mid-decade target of annual pretax profits of $7 billion.

"We know our job is far from over. As you all know, the industry remains fiercely competitive worldwide. We know we have to remain intensely focused on continuing to improve the fundamentals of our business," he said.

Gadflies like Davis gave the meeting an occasional sense of tension, such as when she asked repeatedly why a company with 260 internal lawyers needed to spend $270 million on outside legal counsel last year. The meeting was relatively subdued compared with last year's gathering at Ford's headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., however, when some angry shareholders were locked out of the meeting site.

Nearly 1,300 shareholders turned out for that annual event, which was held as Ford was capping a five-day, gala celebration of its 100th anniversary.
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