Ford Division is mending fences with dealers after a contentious year of product recalls and arguments over the factory's Blue Oval program.
The comments drew applause from an audience of more than 1,000. Ford is facing dealer lawsuits over the program, which asks franchisees to make physical improvements to their stores in return for slightly higher product margins.
O'Connor acknowledged that there is still some ill feeling among dealers over the program. But he said the company believes about 3,000 of Ford Division's 4,400 dealers will be certified for Blue Oval by April 1.
Some dealers who attended the make meeting said they were surprised by the upbeat tone in light of the strained year Ford just completed. Ford saw several product recalls, plus blistering publicity over Explorer rollovers and failing Firestone tires. The new Focus was involved in several quality-related recalls.
O'Connor said the automaker has taken steps to improve quality. The soon-to-debut 2002 Explorer is being scrutinized like no other product launch, he told dealers.
As a gesture of the factory's effort to improve dealer communications, officials told dealers Ford will use e-mail to notify them of news and announcements. The factory now communicates through its Web site.
O'Connor said the factory "wants to work with the dealer." He said the company's foray into Internet retailing — FordDirect — largely will be controlled by retailers rather than the factory. He said that 80 percent of Ford's 4,400 dealers have signed up, and that the system will be nationwide by year end.
O'Connor also told retailers Ford is standing by to assist any small Ford dealers who want to leave the business. If a Ford dealer wants out, the factory will buy back vehicles, parts and signs. It also will provide insurance coverage and other support programs, he said.
"If some of the small dealers want to get out — and there's no gun to their head — we're asking, 'How can we help?' " O'Connor said.
O'Connor said the small-volume dealers who probably will request assistance are likely to have rural stores. He said the closed points will not be replaced — a departure from traditional Ford practice.