TORONTO - When Ford of Canada President Bobbie Gaunt drives away from the company's Oakville, Ontario, headquarters for the last time at the end of this month, she will leave behind some unfinished business and a disgruntled dealer network, but also a company she feels is solidly positioned for the future.
Gaunt, 54, who last month announced her retirement from the top spot at Ford Motor Co. of Canada Ltd. effective Dec. 31, ends a 28-year career that she describes as 'a fabulous ride.' Her successor has not been named.
Gaunt became Ford of Canada's president in 1997. During her 31/2 years in the job, she has taken what she says was essentially a volume-oriented sales and marketing division and turned it into a consumer company oriented to the bottom line. Along the way, she has taken some tough stands and ruffled some feathers:
The company faces a class-action lawsuit related to her elimination in Canada of the Mercury brand, which accounted for only 4 percent of sales.
Dealers are up in arms over the Ford Blue Oval certified performance program, as they are in the United States.
Ford of Canada is squabbling with dealers over chargebacks related to cars sold by dealers and subsequently exported to the United States.
There is also the thorny issue of market share. Ford of Canada has lost nearly five points of share since Gaunt took over, even though sales rose during her watch. Ford held 23.3 percent of the Canadian market in 1996; for the first 11 months of this year, it holds just 18.2 percent.
During her term, Gaunt also established Ford of Canada as a strong force in e-commerce. She considers that an integral part of being a leader in customer satisfaction. Under Gaunt, customer satisfaction has increased each year, according to J.D. Power and Associates reports.
According to a survey by The Globe & Mail of Toronto, Ford is the most respected automotive company in Canada. The newspaper annually surveys Canadian CEOs on their attitudes toward companies. Three years ago, Ford of Canada ranked No. 100 in its Most Respected Canadian Companies report. It moved up to No. 65 last year and No. 39 this year.
Dennis DesRosiers, an independent auto consultant in Toronto, says of Gaunt: 'She's the bravest executive I've ever witnessed in operation in the Canadian automotive sector. She has tackled the toughest of tough issues. She hit them head-on. You just don't see that very often in this industry. And because of it she has taken a lot of heat.'
Some of that heat has come from the Canadian Automobile Dealers Association, whose president, Rick Gauthier, says Ford has had a tense relationship with its dealers and the association for two years.
'Bobbie Gaunt instigated a lot of change, some of which affected the retail network and the dealer-manufacturer relationship. She is certainly someone who defends her position very passionately, and very much believes in what she does.' The association hopes fences can be mended with her successor.
Gaunt says she isn't usually one for regrets, but does regret that the relationship with dealers has been so stormy. 'Dealers taught me the business in my first zone in the Pittsburgh district. And as a result of that, my respect for the entrepreneurial spirit of Ford dealers has continued to grow over the years. And that didn't change in Canada.'
It's the customer
She says she wasn't successful in convincing the critical mass of dealers that it wasn't her, or the Ford of Canada team, that was driving all of the change in the industry. 'I can understand why it scares people to death, but it's really the customer that's doing it. And any company that ignores that does so at their own peril.'
Buzz Hargrove, president of the Canadian Auto Workers union, says Gaunt took a real interest in labor-management issues, and was committed to resolving them. 'We found her very energetic and open. She wanted real input from the unions. Our relationship with her was excellent, and we're sorry to see her go.'
Gaunt, meanwhile, says that no one's work is ever finished. But she is confident she is leaving the company well positioned for the future.
Gaunt plans to retire to the home she shares with her husband in Saugatuck, Mich.