Ross Roberts, former Ford Div. chief and truck champion, dies at 75

Roberts: During his leadership, SUVs went from fringe to mainstream.

Photo credit: FORD
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DETROIT -- Ross Roberts, a former Ford Division general manager who helped turn trucks into everyday vehicles, died today. He was 75.

Roberts was Ford Division general manager from 1991 to 1998, when he also steered the Taurus to a five-year reign as the best-selling car in the United States. The title has been owned every year since by the Honda Accord or Toyota Camry.

When Roberts retired at the end of 1999 after a 37-year Ford career, Automotive News called him "one of the last of a generation of powerful general managers who controlled the North American market at Ford Motor and General Motors."

"I thought he was one of the best sales managers and heads of divisions I've known in all my years in the business. He was great with the dealers," said Fraser Lemley, CEO of Sentry Auto Group in Medford, Mass.

"You'd go into a meeting feeling depressed, you'd have a meeting with him and you'd go back to your store and figure out a way to buy more product."

The automaker mined that affection when installing Roberts in his last post at Ford, president of Ford Investment Enterprises. The subsidiary oversaw a consolidation strategy known as the Ford Retail Network.

The initiative drew strong opposition from dealers who saw the venture as an intrusion into local retailing.

Roberts began his Ford career in 1962 and retired on Dec. 31, 1999, after 37 years of service with the company.

Photo credit: FORD

Truck powerhouse

As Ford Division general manager, he led a truck powerhouse. SUVs such as the Ford Explorer went from fringe to mainstream in the 1990s. They epitomized America's love affair with vehicles touted for their rugged, off-road capabilities, even though in practice they rarely left suburban streets or highways.

Roberts was born in Gainesville, Texas, on Feb. 3, 1938. He joined Ford in 1962, after graduating from the University of Oklahoma and serving in the U.S. Army.

Much of his career was spent in U.S. sales districts from New York to Los Angeles. In 1985, Roberts became general marketing manager for Ford Division, just as Ford was about to introduce the Taurus, one of the most celebrated sedans in its history.

He was named vice president of the automaker in early 1988. Two months later he took over as general manager for Lincoln-Mercury.

"Ross' impact on Ford Motor Co. was remarkable, leaving a legacy that endures," Executive Chairman Bill Ford said in a statement today.

"Ford and Lincoln-Mercury dealers truly respected and had great affection for Ross. His compassion and respect for others were hallmarks of his leadership style and we were privileged to have him as part of the Ford family for so many years."

Roberts was named to the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2001.

He is survived by his wife, Donna; three children and four grandchildren.

Ross Roberts' funeral service will be Monday, Feb. 3 at 10:30 a.m. at First Baptist Church of Naples, 3000 Orange Blossom Drive, Naples, Fla., 34109. A reception at the church will immediately follow.

Bradford Wernle contributed to his report.

You can reach Sean Gagnier at sgagnier@crain.com.


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