Ford reloads to catch up in China

SHANGHAI -- Ford made a couple of big announcements in the run-up to the auto show here, including plans to double its salaried work force in China by adding 1,200 employees by 2015 and introduce 15 new vehicles by then.

They're further signs of Ford's commitment to the world's largest auto market, but the surest sign may be the installation 15 months ago of Joe Hinrichs as top man in Asia.

Ford's sales in China rose 40 percent last year to 582,467 vehicles and they were up 20 percent in March to 53,440, outpacing the 5.4 percent gain in the overall market last month.

But why does Ford have so much ground to make up against General Motors, which has sold more than four times as many cars here as Ford so far this year?

Mainly, because in the mid-1990s, GM out-hustled Ford to win a major joint venture prize with Shanghai Automotive, a competition that Ford was actually favored to win.

Ford put on a full-court press to become SAIC's partner, or so it seemed. Ford Chairman Alex Trotman spent 10 straight days in China in 1994, an unheard-of show of interest by a Big 3 CEO.

But GM had a more rambunctious and determined team of international managers in those days. They snagged the deal and never looked back. Shanghai GM got off the ground in 1996 and Ford has been playing catch-up in China ever since.

Enter Hinrichs, the former global manufacturing boss who took over Ford's Asia-Pacific operations in December 2009. Last November he added direct responsibility for Ford China.

"He's a hands-on guy," said Trevor Hale, Ford's spokesman in China. "He didn't want a layer between him and what was going on here."

At 43, Hinrichs reminds me of the hard-charging young executives who were crisscrossing the globe for GM 15 or so years ago, the ones who outflanked an older Ford international contingent in China. In such a fast-moving market, a young, aggressive leader -- especially one with Hinrichs' track record -- may just be the ticket.

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