Dealers have fond memories of ex-Ford boss Ross Roberts

Former Ford sales and marketing chief Ross Roberts at the Ford Taurus introduction during the 1995 Detroit auto show. During Roberts' reign, the Taurus had a five-year string as the best-selling car in the United States.

Photo credit: JOE WILSSENS
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DETROIT -- To get a sense of how Ross Roberts could sway a dealer, just listen to Fraser Lemley, who sells Fords and Lincolns in Medford, Mass.

"You'd go into a meeting feeling depressed," Lemley, CEO of Sentry Auto Group, recalled last week after the death of the former Ford Motor Co. sales and marketing executive. "You'd have a meeting with him, and you'd go back to your store and you'd figure out a way to buy more product."

Roberts, who died Tuesday, Jan. 28, of congestive heart failure at 75, reflected a mix of Texan straight-shooting and above-the-fray geniality during his 37 years at Ford.

His career began to peak when he took over as head of the flagship Ford Division in 1991. Over the next seven years he would widen Ford's sales lead over Chevrolet, build the Explorer into the nation's best-selling SUV and keep the F-150 the industry's dominant pickup.

He would also steer the Taurus to a five-year reign, ending in 1996, as the best-selling car in the United States. No domestic car has held the title since.

When Roberts retired at the end of 1999, 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."

'A class act'


"He was a class act," said Jim Seavitt, owner of Village Ford in Dearborn, Mich., "He was very well liked by the dealer body. He gave you the truth, straight and unvarnished."

That straight-talking trait continued after his retirement. In a 2003 interview, Roberts said Ford executives needed to "get off the negative" as they battled tough times.

"Get back on the offensive instead of being defensive," he said. "The only way you are going to win is to be positive and go do it. Some think that is naive. I don't."

Early in his Ford career he worked in district sales offices from New York to Los Angeles. In the 1980s came assignments at the company's Dearborn headquarters. Later he became head of Lincoln-Mercury, at the time a common stepping stone to the bigger Ford Division job.

His successor at Lincoln-Mercury, Lee Miskowski, said last week that when it came to communicating with dealers, Roberts "was the most colloquial, the most humorous, the most down to earth" executive Miskowski had ever seen.

Roberts also had some good luck. In 1985 he became general marketing manager for Ford Division just as Ford was about to introduce the Taurus.

The sedan and its distinctive, jelly bean shape became a symbol of Ford's recovery from a brutal recession in the early 1980s. Roberts later would call it the "single biggest gamble our company ever made."

When he took the helm of Lincoln-Mercury in 1988, the newly redesigned front-wheel-drive Lincoln Continental helped close the gap against perennial luxury king Cadillac. By the time Roberts became chief of Ford Division in 1991, he had the just-introduced Explorer SUV in his lineup.

Thanks to the Explorer, SUVs went from fringe to mainstream under Roberts' watch. The truck came to epitomize America's love affair with vehicles touted for their rugged, off-road capabilities, even though in practice they rarely left suburban streets or highways.

Things got tougher as the decade wore on. The redesigned 1996 Taurus failed to match the success of the earlier versions. Ford Motor Co.'s loss of U.S. market share in 1996 was the first of 13 straight annual declines.

And the halo surrounding the Explorer vanished quickly in early 2000 amid a crisis over Firestone tires prone to blowouts.

Texas roots


Roberts was born Cecil Ross Kling in Gainesville, Texas, on Feb. 3, 1938. He was raised in Texas-Oklahoma dust bowl border towns by a mother who fostered a pride in her Native American heritage.

He would later adopt the surname of his stepfather, "Doc" Floyd Roberts, and work in his used-car lot.

He joined Ford in 1962 after graduating from the University of Oklahoma and serving in the U.S. Army. When he retired on Dec. 31, 1999, he was president of Ford Investment Enterprises. The subsidiary oversaw a failed effort to consolidate dealerships under factory ownership.

The initiative riled many dealers, who saw it as an intrusion into local retailing and a threat to the franchise system. By some accounts, Roberts was given the task because of his knack for smoothing things over with dealers.

"I'm happy every day of my life," he said in 1993. "I don't believe in management by intimidation."

Roberts was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2001.

He is survived by his wife of 47 years, Donna; three children; and four grandchildren.

Bradford Wernle contributed to this report.

You can reach Dave Versical at dversical@crain.com.


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