DETROIT - If dealers are keeping score, Brian Kelley comes to bat at Ford Motor Co. with two strikes against him.
Since arriving at Ford in 1999, he has overseen two issues that make dealers wary: e-commerce and factory ownership of dealerships.
Now, as Ford's new vice president in charge of global consumer services, Kelley's first job is to gain the confidence of the company's retailers. It will be a challenge because Kelley hasn't worked with dealers before and has no experience selling cars and trucks.
Ford's relations with its dealers are rocky. For example, Ford Division ranked last in the most recent National Automobile Dealers Association dealer attitude survey.
'Dealers have a wait-and-see attitude,' said Jerry Reynolds, chairman of the Ford Division National Dealer Council. But Reynolds already is giving Kelley some points. Within 48 hours of his promotion, Kelley called Reynolds seeking to map out a return to healthier dealer relations.
'That told me a lot. He didn't have to do that,' Reynolds said. 'We are meeting in April. He is very concerned about dealer relations. He wants to sit down and figure out how to solve it.'
Kelley, 40, represents a new era in marketing at Ford. He replaces Robert Rewey, a 38-year veteran at Ford. In contrast, Kelley landed at Ford less than two years ago by way of General Electric's appliance division and Procter & Gamble Co. He has made his mark at Ford by heading ConsumerConnect, the company's global unit for all e-commerce strategies.
His job includes global marketing, the automotive consumer services group, dealer development, worldwide direct markets, Ford racing technology and ConsumerConnect.
Using the Web
Kelley cites the need to improve dealer relations as his top priority and plans to meet with key dealers worldwide in the next year. Kelley, a former football player at Holy Cross College in Massachusetts, is a low-key executive with a youthful countenance. He is not a showman, preferring a quieter manner suited to a man who enjoys rising early, retiring early and devoting time to his young children.
'I am very willing to learn and listen,' Kelley said. 'I want to make sure I thoroughly understand the dealer issues.'
Dealer wariness is born of more than Kelley's status as a newcomer who did not rise through the ranks of Ford's field organization. As head of ConsumerConnect, Kelley has led Ford's Internet strategy at a time when dealers worry that manufacturers will try to sell vehicles directly to consumers via the Web.
Kelley said he does not envision Ford selling directly to consumers online. 'We have a strong dealer base, and we will always have a strong dealer base,' he said. 'Everything we do in e-business works with and through the dealers and will continue to.'
Initially, the Internet will strengthen the bonds between the customer and Ford and its dealers, Kelley said.
'The Internet is a major, major accelerator for developing customer relationships,' he said. Customer focus is the marching cry of Ford CEO Jacques Nasser. Kelley's promise to use the Internet as a customer tool is a pivotal reason he holds the new position, which reports to Nasser.
Backing Blue Oval
Kelley's ConsumerConnect portfolio also included Ford's Auto Collection dealerships, stores operated with Ford investment. After a three-year battle with its dealers, Ford has abandoned the once far-reaching strategy of factory-owned dealerships.
But as one skirmish fades, a new one looms.
Currently, Ford Division dealers oppose the factory's drive to certify top performing stores as Blue Oval dealerships. Indeed, dealer associations in 17 states are preparing to mount a legal challenge to the program.
In the 2001 model year, Ford is returning to Blue Oval dealerships 1.25 percent of each new vehicle's invoice price. Ford increased invoice prices 1 percent on all 2001 models, hiking the amount all dealers pay for vehicles. But only Blue Oval dealers recoup the increase plus another quarter of one percent.
Kelley describes himself as 'a strong supporter of the Blue Oval program.'