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The Way Forward announcement

After Ford Motor Co. releases its full-year financial results Monday, the automaker plans to release its Way Forward restructuring plan at 10:30 a.m. Ford officials are expected to close plants, lay off tens of thousands of workers and detail the automaker's strategy for the future.

Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Bill Ford and his executive team are to answer questions about the plan from noon until 1:15 p.m.

Analysts say Ford needs to close four or five of its 18 assembly plants in North America as well as several plants that build parts. Most independent experts say these plants are most vulnerable:

Wixom, which employs 1,567 and makes the Ford GT, Lincoln LS and Lincoln Town Car.

St. Louis, which employs 1,445 and makes the Ford Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer SUVs.

St. Paul, Minn., which employs 1,965 and makes the Ford Ranger compact pickup.

Atlanta, which employs 2,028 and produces the Ford Taurus sedan.

Cuautitlan, Mexico, which employs 900, and makes the Ford Superduty pickups and the Ikon car sold in South America.
Ford Motor Co. is expected to announce Monday that it will close the Wixom Assembly Plant as part of its anxiously awaited Way Forward plan -- a wide-ranging effort that will close plants, lay off tens of thousands of workers and detail the automaker's strategy for the future.

The Dearborn-based automaker has publicly refused to comment on which plants it might close, causing worries to mount in cities where Ford cars, trucks and auto parts are built.

But on Friday two Ford officials with knowledge of the plan, who did not want to be identified, said it now calls for Wixom's closure. Although they said the plan has been finalized, changes are possible until Ford Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Bill Ford makes the announcement at 10:30 a.m. Monday.

A state official who asked not to be named because of the sensitive nature of the announcement said late Friday that Ford officials had contacted the state to indicate that bad news for Michigan would be forthcoming Monday, without mentioning Wixom.

Besides Wixom, the plants most likely to close are in St. Louis, Mo.; St. Paul, Minn.; Atlanta, and Cuautitlan, Mexico. In recent days, Canadian Auto Workers President Buzz Hargrove expressed concern that a car plant in St. Thomas, Ontario, would be cut.

But no town has been more on edge than Wixom.

The community had long thought the 49-year-old Wixom plant, employing 1,567, was destined for extinction. But hope was kindled by such reports as a Wednesday one from Catherine Madden, an automotive production analyst at Global Insight, a research firm in Lexington, Mass., that she believed the plant would be spared.

Ford Motor has 11 Michigan plants employing more than 20,000 hourly and salaried employees, according to a company Web site. Wixom is the smallest -- by number of employees -- of four assembly plants in Michigan. The other three are in Dearborn and Wayne

Michigan officials have said they are working to keep every Ford job in the state and a spokeswoman for Gov. Jennifer Granholm said Friday that she is still waiting to hear the automaker's decision about Wixom.

Granholm met Jan. 11 with Anne Stevens, Ford's chief operating officer for the Americas, and Steve Hamp, chief of staff for Ford, to offer breaks on personal property taxes and the Single Business Tax.

She also said the state would be willing to improve the I-96 intersection at Wixom Road if that would help accommodate expansion or renovation of the plant there.

Granholm did not place a dollar value on the state's proposed aid.

An announcement to close Wixom would finally put the issue to rest and allow the town and its workers to move on and prepare for a different future.

At one time, the Wixom plant, a sprawling, 4.7-million-square-foot facility on the outskirts of Novi, proudly made four cars under one roof.

But in recent years, the plant built weak-selling products, such as the Ford Thunderbird and Lincoln Continental, which seemed to foretell troubled times.

In 2002, Ford cut jobs and production at the factory. Lately, the plant has only been running only one shift to build the Ford GT sports car, and the Lincoln LS and Lincoln Town Car, mid- and full-size luxury sedans.

While most assembly plants can build about 200,000 or so vehicles a year, the plant made 72,725 of those cars last year and all could be discontinued or built at other Ford factories.

Automotive industry experts have long said that Ford, saddled with about four or five more assembly plants than it needs, should close Wixom.

But a Dec. 2 article in the Wall Street Journal first raised public hopes that Wixom might live on, and that Ford's assembly plant in Atlanta, which builds the Ford Taurus, might be closed instead.

Ford insiders quietly dismissed the notion at the time, suggesting both could close, and even union leaders said they were skeptical that Wixom might remain open.

"It's a good rumor, but it's just that, a rumor," UAW Local 36 President Dave Berry said at the time.

Still, the hope that Wixom could be saved spread like wildfire in beaten-down metro Detroit, which had been battered with news of factory job cuts for weeks. Just a week before, nearly 60,000 job cuts had been announced in the area, including 30,000 by General Motors Corp.

After that, the speculation on Wixom seemed to quiet until the report from Global Insight.

Ford Motor has the ability to build between 800,000 and 1 million more vehicles than it can sell each year, a heavy cost to carry when Ford sales in the United States dropped 5.0% last year, to 3.2 million cars and trucks.

To bring production costs in line with sales, Ford needs to eliminate four or five of its 18 assembly plants in North America, which can make about 200,000 cars or trucks apiece, as well as several parts plants.

Erich Merkle, director of forecasting for IRN Inc. in Grand Rapids, said that Ford needs to eliminate at least two car plants and will likely choose among factories in Atlanta, Wixom and St. Thomas.

"It has to come from somewhere," Merkle said.

Monday's Way Forward restructuring plan will finally put the matter to rest.

The plan will be the second restructuring under the tenure of Bill Ford, the great-grandson of Henry Ford, who founded the company and left a proud legacy that the Ford family is determined to protect.

In 2002, Ford announced a revitalization that promised to close five plants, eliminate 35,000 jobs worldwide and bring 20 new or freshened products annually in the United States.

From 1999 to 2004, Ford eliminated 39,686 employees worldwide, ending 2004 with 324,864 workers.
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