Jim O'Connor has some tall Texas cowboy boots to fill.
O'Connor was named last week to head Ford Division, a truck powerhouse built by the straight-talking, charismatic Texan Ross Roberts.
Roberts, 60, was named president of the newly formed Ford Investment Enterprise Corp., a Ford subsidiary created to develop and implement the company's new distribution strategies. He remains a vice president of Ford Motor Co.
Roberts became a folk hero to dealers during seven years as Ford Division general manager. Placing him at the forefront of the consolidation movement may ease dealer qualms and produce results more quickly. Under his command, Ford's push to unify retail markets throughout the nation will gain urgency and strength.
Lincoln Mercury, which is in the midst of reinventing itself and moving its headquarters to Southern California, gets its second general manager in 25 months.
Mark Hutchins, 52, a veteran Ford sales and marketing executive and former president of Ford of Canada, picks up the reins at Lincoln Mercury, replacing O'Connor as general manager. He also was named a vice president of Ford Motor Co.
The changes were announced Friday, May 15, and are effective immediately.
FORD DIVISION IMPACT
The changes will have the biggest impact at the giant Ford Division.
The division's 4,970 dealers have come to rely on Roberts as an unwavering voice for dealers and the retail side of the business. They have grown accustomed to a straight-talking leader who may not always say what they like to hear, but who can be trusted.
The success of the Ford Explorer, Ford Expedition and Ford F-150 has bankrolled very good times at Ford dealerships. The Ford Taurus wore the crown as the best-selling U.S. car for five years until 1997.
Now, O'Con-nor, 55, will lead the division in a period of flux. Traditional distribution methods are under attack throughout the industry. Ford's own retail experiments, particularly its attempt to consolidate Indianapolis dealerships, have created some uneasiness in the dealer body.
Ford Division's very success in trucks also has become one of its weaknesses.
The division is trying to boost car sales by at least 7 percent this year to balance its portfolio. The Taurus needs a makeover. And the division's car lines need to be remarketed as affordable, dependable, reliable vehicles without upmarket pretensions, some critics argue.
Ford Division is a powerful player within Ford Motor Co., but the company is focused on a global strategy and global growth.
'We are confident Jim O'Connor can bring the same accomplishments and success to Ford Division that he had at Lincoln Mercury,' said Barry Merrill, chairman of the Ford Division National Dealer Council and president of Wadsworth Ford in Wadsworth, Ohio.
LINCOLN MERCURY ERA
O'Connor presided over Lincoln Mercury in an era of transition.
He oversaw the launch of Lincoln's first sport-utility, the Navigator. He has begun creating more relevant identities for Lincoln and Mercury. The brands are expected to gain independence and product development clout when they relocate to Southern California this fall.
Outgoing and energetic, O'Connor has had a 34-year career at Ford Motor in a range of marketing posts.
His two years at Lincoln Mercury were not problem-free.
O'Connor initially restricted Navigator distribution, excluding rural dealers from a chance to sell the vehicle. Dealer complaints resounded in several states. Texas state regulators began an investigation; other states considered inquiries.
Eventually, Lincoln had to drop its strict distribution limit. Instead, it instituted operating standards and required dealers to meet specified criteria to obtain new models such as the Navigator and the 2000 model Lincoln LS sedans.