Ford Division executives assured dealers there will be no changes to the controversial Blue Oval certification program without the involvement and consent of the Ford Dealer Council.
One symbolic gesture: Dealers now will receive factory news directly from the manufacturer by e-mail. The factory now communicates through its Web site. Dealers log in and scroll through news and announcements at their own initiative. Now, retailers will find news among their daily e-mails.
Blue Oval has been a particularly touchy issue for Ford dealers. Retailers and the manufacturer have been struggling for a year to come to terms over the dealer-improvement program.
Last August Ford agreed to change the program in response to dealer protests, making it easier to qualify for certification.
Some retailers are challenging the program in court, even though Ford expects 3,000 of its retailers to be certified by April 1.
Under the program, dealers who meet customer-service goals receive financial bonuses.
Despite the troubled dealer relations, there was little friction at the make meeting. Several dealers admitted they were surprised by how upbeat the gathering had been.
"I think Ford's really making an effort to communicate better," said Ron Davis, general manager of Tom Boland Ford in Hannibal, Mo. "There really wasn't an issue over Blue Oval."
Speaking at the meeting, Ford Division President Jim O'Connor said the factory "wants to work with the dealer."
He said the company's foray into Internet retailing — FordDirect — will be largely controlled by retailers rather than the factory. He said 80 percent of Ford's 4,400 dealers now have signed up, and the system will be nationwide by year end.
O'Connor also told retailers that Ford now is standing by to assist any of the 1,600 small rural Ford dealers who want to leave the business. If a Ford dealer wants out, the factory will buy back vehicles, parts and signs, and will provide insurance coverage and other support programs, he said.
"We're not going to force anyone to do anything," he said. "There's a lot to be gained if we just listen."