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By Eric Mayne / The Detroit News

Ford Motor Co.’s turnaround is ahead of schedule and the automaker will not back off from its self-imposed $7 billion annual pretax profit target, Chairman and CEO Bill Ford Jr. said Sunday.

“There’s no reason we should back away from that,” Bill Ford Jr. said in an interview at the North American International Auto Show.

The source of his confidence: cash reserves of nearly $26.9 billion, leadership stability, the successful launch of the new F-150 pickup and a stream of new and redesigned cars and trucks on the way.

Ford launched a turnaround plan two years ago after losing $6.5 billion in 2001 and 2002.

The plan called for plant closures, some 21,000 job cuts and the replacement of unprofitable vehicle lines with fresh products.

“I’m very comfortable with where we are,” Bill Ford said, even claiming that Wall Street analysts who were skeptical of the automaker’s outlook “are starting to turn.”

Last month, Ford increased its full-year 2003 earnings guidance from a range of 95 cents to $1.05 a share, up to a range of $1.05 to $1.10 a share from continuing operations, excluding special items.

Bill Ford said a “herd mentality” on Wall Street can affect a company’s reputation for better or worse.

The great-grandson of company founder Henry Ford is less content with Ford of Europe’s performance.

Ford had a $1.2 billion pretax loss for its European business in the first nine months of 2003. The automaker and former Ford of Europe Chief Martin Leach are embroiled in a lawsuit involving a noncompete clause and the executive’s designs on the top job at Fiat SpA.

Ford said Leach quit while Leach said he was fired and the Fiat job went to former Volkswagen executive Herbert Demel.

“I expect ’04 to be a very different year than in ’03,” Bill Ford said. “We better have a dramatic turnaround in Europe.”
 
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