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Hesterberg says Ford not 'defending' truck franchise

Earl Hesterberg
LAS VEGAS (Reuters) -- The head of the second-largest Ford Motor Co. dealership group today said the automaker was not doing enough to defend the market-leading position of its F-series pickup.

"What's really bothering us at Ford has been the weak F-series sales the last two months," said Earl Hesterberg, CEO of Group 1 Automotive Inc.

"For most Ford dealers, especially dealers outside the urban areas, that's really our bread and butter," he said.

Ford, which is racing to cut jobs and shutter plants as its U.S. market share declines, reported a 5 percent drop in retail sales for January.

Sales of its F-series pickups, which have long ranked as the best-selling vehicles in America, were down 14.9 percent in January. The company has warned that it would see its overall market share fall through the third quarter.

Hesterberg, who was speaking on the sidelines of an automotive conference organized by J.D. Power, said Ford needed to shore up support for its F series at the showroom floor.

"We certainly don't think Ford has been defending the F series for the past several months," he said. "Now what does that mean? Does it mean advertising? Does it mean incentives? I don't really know, but I can tell you other Ford dealers that I talk to -- and we're the No. 2 Ford dealer-- for us the F series is our lifeblood."

Ford spokesman Jim Cain said U.S. pickup sales in recent months had been skewed by "fire sale" incentives intended to clear out inventory of Dodge Ram pickups from the Chrysler group and the outgoing version of the Toyota Tundra.

Analysts have cautioned that Ford's F-series pickups also face tougher competition in coming months from revamped truck offerings from rivals General Motors and Toyota Motor Corp., which launches a redesigned Tundra this month.

But Cain said Ford also would benefit from the launch of a new version of its F-series Super Duty. The Super Duty model accounts for 40 percent of Ford's F-series sales volume. The new version of the Super Duty has just started selling.

"We have a lot of arrows in our quiver," he said, adding that Ford's sales incentives were competitive.

Ford CEO Alan Mulally was scheduled to meet with dealers this weekend in Las Vegas, his first appearance at a national dealer convention since taking the top job at the automaker last year.

Separately, Hesterberg said he remained concerned that inventories could build back up for the Detroit 3 this year as they did last year, raising costs for dealers who are forced to finance the unsold vehicles.

"I absolutely have a concern about inventories and it's been an ongoing concern in our company for six to nine months," he said.

Hesterberg said that the Detroit 3 needed to break out of the cycle of sharp declines in monthly showroom sales that he said were cutting into the profitability of their dealers.

"They have to arrest the year over year significant decline in retail sales," he said. "You can always have a month when you're down 2 percent over last year, but when you're having consecutive months when you're down (by double digits) your distribution network is going to get weaker."

Group 1 Automotive, based in Houston, ranks No. 4 on the Automotive News list of the top 100 dealership groups in the United States with retail sales of 126,108 new vehicles in 2005.

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