Q&A: Ross Roberts to Ford: Remember your strengths
That's the advice of a straight-talking Texan to Ford Motor Co.
Ross Roberts retired from Ford in 1999 but is still on call to the company's top executives, including Chairman Bill Ford.
"One, stay the course. Two, get off the negative," said Roberts when asked what advice he has dispensed to those grappling with Ford Motor's current tough times. "Get back on the offensive instead of being defensive. The only way you are going to win is to be positive and go do it. Some think that is naive. I don't."
Roberts, 65, was one of the last of a generation of powerful general managers who controlled the North American market at Ford Motor and General Motors during the 1980s and much of the 1990s.
As Ford Division general manager from 1991 to 1998, Roberts was instrumental in turning light trucks such as the Ford Explorer into everyday personal-use vehicles. After a 37-year career at Ford, Roberts retired as president of Ford Investment Enterprises, the subsidiary overseeing the company's controversial dealership consolidation strategy known as the Ford Retail Network.
He was interviewed by Mary Connelly.
What is your favorite Ford Motor vehicle and why?
The Explorer. Because of the functionality of it. The versatility of it. The last one is the best. It just keeps getting improved. Besides, we make a lot of money off of those.
You were an early champion of SUVs and were pivotal in making them mainstream in America.
I look at the Explorer. The whole package is so versatile, with the sprawling of America. What America is really all about: about family and doing things together and visiting people and vacationing. Explorer gave us the opportunity to do that with greater ease and comfort.
The product engineers and product developers read the trends. There was beautiful buy-in at Ford Motor Co. on that product.
What was it about the Explorer that made it resonate in that era?
The concept was good. The package was great. It was an American-type vehicle. It was a vehicle Americans wanted to have. Dealers embraced it. It was really a truck on a truck platform. But it was a car. Our job was to get the dealers to put the emphasis on it and see the market potential.
What do think today when SUVs are under fire?
It is the biggest bunch of lack of knowledge I have ever seen in my life. I think it is ridiculous. Some of the big cars get less fuel economy than SUVs.
What about critics today who raise safety issues?
The SUV is wonderfully safe. I'm talking all SUVs, not just Explorer. There have been a ton of accidents that don't get reported where the Explorer saved a life because they were up high and safe.
What is the most memorable event at Ford in which you participated?
To get (Ford Division) leadership over Chevrolet and General Motors on trucks. And to take over the leadership position on cars and trucks (combined) in the 1990s. We had a lot of fun doing it. We had a lot of leadership battles. It got the company and the dealership people to work for a single objective.
And having the Ford Taurus No. 1 (in car sales in 1992). Taurus saved Ford Motor Co. To get it to No. 1 was a big deal back then.
Do you have any advice to help Ford get through the current tough times?
I've already given them that.
Stay the course. Work with the talent you have within the company. One of the reasons I joined Ford Motor Co. was because Ford Motor Co. promoted from within. There was no magic path to success. Every job you had, you had to do the best and then you got promoted.
One, stay the course. Two, get off the negative. Let's talk about our strengths, our positives. Get back on the offensive instead of being defensive as in the past few years.
To whom have you given that message?
I have talked to Bill Ford, Jim Padilla (president of North America), David Thursfield (president of international operations and global purchasing), Steve Lyons (Lincoln Mercury president) and Darryl Hazel. I talk to a lot of people still.