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Stalled brand challenges 1st female manager in family

BY SARAH A. WEBSTER
FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER

In a cramped office at Ford Motor Co.'s product development center, far from a coveted corner space and even farther from the Glass House headquarters, Elena Ford has Mercury on her mind.

After nine years and a resume-building succession of jobs with the Dearborn-based automaker, the great-great-granddaughter of Henry Ford has ascended to this modest den. Her focus is reviving the suffering premium brand that has bridged the gap between the company's book-end Ford and Lincoln brands since 1939.

Although Ford Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Bill Ford will unveil the new Mercury Montego sedan on Wednesday at the 2004 Chicago Auto Show, his cousin, Elena, will not be far offstage, mixing with journalists and dealers. In a more public role with the company, including a dinner with news media tonight, she'll be promoting a plan that will deliver at least six new cars and trucks for Mercury, and five for Lincoln, within the next four years.

The blunt business-school graduate and mother of six has confidence the strategy will lead to a renaissance for the in-between brand created by her great-grandfather, Edsel Ford.

"There's absolutely no chance of Mercury going away," Elena Ford said in an interview last week. "We have a good plan for it, and we know what we're doing."

High stakes
For the first woman and first fifth-generation Ford to assume a management role at the company, the stakes on a Mercury turnaround couldn't be much higher.

While Ford Motor posted a profit in 2003, after losing $6.4 billion in the prior two years, it's also expected to slip a notch from its longtime position as the world's No. 2 automaker. It's clear that Mercury shares a good dose of blame.

The brand, which is part of the Lincoln-Mercury division, had been neglected for years as executives moved it between the Premier Automotive Group in Irvine, Calif., which oversees Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo, and North American operations in Dearborn. Meanwhile, Mercury's customers were being poached by mainstream and luxury competitors, which have gone upscale or down to skim buyers from the middle of the market.

The effect has been dramatic. During the past five years, annual sales for Mercury have plummeted by more than half, to 200,000 cars and trucks last year. Ford Motor would not discuss Mercury's profitability.

But Elena Ford said the strategic confusion about Mercury, which returned to Dearborn in 2003 under North American operations, is over.

"There was a time when they weren't paying so much attention to Mercury as they should have been, but we're never getting rid of Mercury," said Ford, who assumed her current post in October 2003. "It's very important to the overall health of the company.'

An about-face in sales at Mercury would be a big boost to the career of the 37-year-old Ford, who has previously mentioned aspiring to a board seat. She now downplays those ambitions -- "I'm headed wherever they want me," she said -- but her career moves seem to reveal purpose and determination.

Ford has moved through at least 10 jobs at the company since 1995. During a year-long post as Mercury Group marketing manager in 2002, she helped develop the product plan that she is now promoting as director of product marketing for Ford, Lincoln and Mercury.

When Ford took the Mercury marketing job, the product plan called for the discontinuation of the Villager minivan and Cougar sports coupe in 2002 and almost no new product, except the Monterey minivan, until 2005. She said she quickly became "concerned with how the dealer network was going to be viable," and worked with a team that met every Monday for a year to get new Mercury products out this year.

Now, the plan will bring the Montego and a new Mariner compact SUV to showrooms late this year.

"Mercury needed a lot of help," she said.

The amended plan probably pleases the 650 Lincoln-Mercury dealers who only have nine products to sell today. That includes the Navigator and Aviator SUVs, which have given the luxury Lincoln brand some momentum.

Industry experts have said that getting Mercury headed in the right direction won't be an easy task, even for a dedicated automotive scion with gasoline in her veins and a fresh product plan in hand.

Problem position

The biggest problem with Mercury is its position in the marketplace, trapped between mainstream and luxury, as the market for the middle is being squeezed.

Lower-end brands are offering more amenities to attract buyers and luxury makes are extending a hand down the price chain to lure customers up to their more expensive models, said Michael Schmall, managing partner for the Planning Edge, an automotive research firm in Farmington Hills.

Today, Chevrolets, Toyotas and Hondas compete in the $30,000-price range against what is called the near-luxury set, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, BMW 3 Series and Lexus ES.

In this environment, Schmall said, it's difficult to position a vehicle in the middle.

But Ford said that's where Mercury still belongs.

"You can't bring Lincoln down enough and you can't bring Ford up high enough," she said. "The playing field for Mercury is between Ford and Lincoln."

Sales for General Motor Corp.'s Buick brand, which Ford mentioned as a Mercury competitor, were down 22 percent last year, despite a popular Rendezvous SUV. Buick is positioned between GM's Chevrolet and Cadillac labels and annual sales are down 24 percent since 1999. That compares with a 5-year decline of 54 percent for Mercury.

Only Chrysler, which is positioned between Dodge and Mercedes and is making a concerted effort to move upscale, has been beating this trend among middle-tier brands. Its sales, boosted by the popular PT Cruiser, were up 44 percent over the past five years.

Elena Ford and Lincoln-Mercury executives are confident there is still room to grow.

Ford Motor will be marketing the new Mercury car and SUV to young professionals, and Elena Ford said she hopes to bring the age of a new Mercury buyer down from the 45-75 range to about 35-40 with the newer products.

While Ford's career could be riding on the success of Mercury, she is modest about her role.

"It wasn't just Elena," she said. Mercury is "not only important to me, it's important to a lot of people around here."

What's more, Ford said, she doesn't want a promotion for the "wrong reasons" or if she hasn't earned it.

"I really want to earn my way into every job," she said. "I want to earn my way, and I don't want anything I don't deserve."
 

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9 years in the company and already at that level and she says she wants to "earn every job she gets"???

What crap, that far in 9 years has ONLY happened for her because she is from the Ford family!! Just what Ford need another underdone family member deciding and guiding the future of Ford.

Junk bond status here we come!!!
 

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Discussion Starter #3
It wasn't a Ford family member that got them into this mess.
 

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Couldn't agree more with that Stacy94GT.

Ford's problems are long in the making and cost cutting they way they are is not IMO positioning them well for future success. While Toyota and Honda seem to have a large part of the US sedan market sewn up and are expanding into SUV's and large "trucks", Ford is doing nothing to challenge them in the sedan market. The 500 in particular is an absolute shocker!!

Toyota make world cars, that while bland in appearance are accepted to a large extent throughout the world, they can therefore apportion their development costs across a larger cross section of markets in a wider array of countries. The 500 simply wouldn't sell anywhere but the US. Certainly not in Europe and definitely not here in my native Australia.

My comments were not intended to blame the Ford family for the ailing fortunes of Ford Motor Company (although their control of the company and closed shop management structure is a contributing factor) but to question the idea that merit rather than family connections has gotten Elena to where she is within Ford. Her rise is all about family and nothing to do with what is best for the company nor is it about who is best for a particular role. Worldwide, there are many more qualified and more experienced people who could have taken on her role but Ford tends not to bring in outside expertise promoting almost exclusively from within, from a pool of people who have been unable to direct the company towards a positive future for some time.

And that is the most disappointing aspect of Fords current performance and future direction.
 

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Well, I agree with about 90% of what you said. But, I'm one of those people who belive if a family owns a bussiness. No matter how big or small. They should be involved in their bussiness. :priest: Sure, she's a Ford. But, that's just one of the brakes of being an offspring to a rich, powerful automive family.
 
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