Lincoln Mercury dealers are so worried about potential competition from Ford Motor Co.'s dealership consolidations that they asked Ford for a telecast question-and-answer session.
And they got it.
Ross Roberts, the Ford executive coordinating the market-by-market consolidations, will address their questions in a live broadcast on Friday, Feb. 26.
Roberts said he also will set up a live Q&A session for Ford dealers if they request it. Three weeks ago, Ford sent letters to all its dealers explaining the consolidations. Roberts is president of Ford Investment Enterprise Corp.
The consolidations, called Ford Retail Networks, are unsettling many dealers. Some fear they will be forced to sell out to Ford or a large public dealership chain. Others worry the Ford-sponsored consolidations will enter their markets, and they do not relish competing with their manufacturer.
The worries are fed by tales that Ford gives special treatment to the consolidated stores, called Auto Collection in local markets.
'There is such a concern among Ford dealers that the No. 1 and No. 2 priorities listed by the national Ford Dealer Council are 'trust-relationship' (with Ford) and Ford Retail Network,' says Bert Boeckmann, president of Galpin Motors in North Hills, Calif.
Boeckmann last year backed out of plans to be part of a Ford Retail Network.
But Roberts said recent gripes about favoritism from dealers who compete with the Auto Collection are the result of miscommunication. He wants to clear the air.
Two Auto Collections are operating, in Tulsa, Okla., and San Diego. Three more, in Oklahoma City, Rochester, N.Y., and Salt Lake City, will start within months. Dealers sell their stores to the consolidation venture and often take jobs and stock in the new company. Ford also owns a share of the venture.
'I have met with all the management teams at Ford, Lincoln Mercury and Mazda and made it clear that we (the Auto Collections) will not receive preferential treatment,' Roberts said.
A few competing dealers complained that Ford gave Auto Collection stores advance notice of incentive programs, more voting power in Ford dealer advertising groups and better fleet incentives. But Roberts said that in Tulsa the incentives got to the company stores first only because a field representative happened to get news of the program while visiting an Auto Collection store. 'The field representative immediately called the other dealers with the incentives,' Roberts said.
Roberts said Ford has altered its dealer advertising group program to make it more fair for dealers who are not part of the Auto Collection. Though the Auto Collection is considered one dealership, the groups still get the same number of votes they did before the stores were consolidated. But, Roberts said, the votes for the Auto Collection cannot exceed 50 percent of the entire vote.
So, for example, if the Auto Collection has six votes and the independent dealerships have four votes, the company stores cannot carry the vote 6-4. The vote would be considered a tie.
'But the tie breaker is Ford's regional manager,' said Brent Butterfield, president of Butterfield Ford in Sandy, Utah. 'It will be hard to resist the temptation to favor the Collection. They (the Ford field staff and the Auto Collection) both have the same mother.'
With regard to fleet incentives, Roberts said all Tulsa-area dealers were notified that they could get 100 percent reimbursement to paint squad cars black and white. But a dealership that complained misplaced the notice and thought the Ford Auto Collection had an exclusive deal, he said.
Frank Davis, general manager of James Hodges Ford in Muskogee, Okla., however, still insists that Ford gave the Auto Collection special treatment. Said Davis: 'Even our (Ford field) rep didn't know about the paint incentive. How were we supposed to know?'