Collin Sewell's great-grandfather started selling Model Ts from his hardware store in 1911.
His great-grandfather assembled the cars, then taught customers how to drive them. Sewell, who has a soft Southern drawl, says it was his family's first foray into customer service.
One hundred years later, customer service and product innovation are the keys to Ford dealers' success, says Sewell, chairman of the Ford National Dealer Council and president of Sewell Ford-Lincoln in Odessa, Texas.
Ford will launch the redesigned 2012 Focus compact car in the next month or so. The redesigned 2011 Explorer crossover is on sale now. Dealers have high expectations for both vehicles, but getting vehicles is sometimes tough as Ford continues to keep inventory tight.
Sewell spoke with Staff Reporter Jamie LaReau.
Q: How was 2010 for Ford dealers?
A: I think 2010 was significantly better for Ford dealers than the prior two years. Overall, we increased our sales and improved dealer attitude and company direction. Excitement about the future is up.
What will the big issues for Ford dealers be this year?
The biggest issue for any dealer at this point is learning how to handle an uncertain economy.
Ford has launched the 2011 Explorer. It will launch the redesigned 2012 Focus compact off its new global compact car platform this spring. What are your expectations for those vehicles?
Those are two of the products I'm excited about this year.
When you look at the new Focus, if someone were to peel the curtain back and see what Ford's future in the car industry would be, the Focus would be a glimpse into that. It's cutting edge, it's a beautiful design, it drives like a luxury sports sedan but it has the affordability that Ford has offered for years.
On the Explorer, Ford was one of the pioneers of the small SUV market. When you see this new Explorer it'll be just as revolutionary as it was when it first came out. It still has that luxury design and interior and the ruggedness that the Explorer has been known for over the decades.
The people who loved the Explorer from days gone by will love it again.
The challenge with the Focus will be how do we get people to realize it's a whole new car? So we'll be working on attracting a whole new set of customers with the Focus that's coming out.
Ford wants to match inventory to demand so it doesn't have to offer big incentives, which hurt residual values. Dealers have complained they can't get enough of popular vehicles. How do you get better balance in 2011?
My responsibility as dealer council chairman is to strike a balance between a good days supply and yet offer availability of products for all dealers across the nation. That's a real struggle we have to work through.
Part of the struggle is getting dealers to understand that we can operate our business on a lower days supply of vehicles. And we have to get the factory to understand the value of having a good selection of vehicles on our lots. Then figure out how we balance those two. That's the tightrope we'll have to walk.
We'll make some progress on it in 2011, but we'll see more thorough progress in the next 24 months. We all acknowledge it's a problem, but it's a far better challenge than having too many vehicles in stock and figuring out how to move them.
I believe we're two years out from seeing any kind of major solution there.
How much real contact do the dealers have with factory management?
From a dealer council perspective, obviously, I have weekly contact with the leadership of the company. I think the majority of Ford dealers across the country have the availability of Ford leadership when they need it.
Are dealers satisfied with Ford management, marketing and products?
If you look at the way Ford Motor Co. has led themselves and led dealers through the last couple of years, dealers should be very pleased with what Ford has done. My family has been in the car business for more than 100 years. Today, more than ever, we are very proud to be Ford dealers.
Where can Ford improve?
We have to continue to work toward strengthening the relationship with dealers, push for innovation in products and continue to make the buying process as convenient for the customer as possible. I don't think we do any of these things poorly, but when we talk about working more consistently with the dealers and product innovation, when you look at how quickly technology is progressing, we have to provide cutting-edge products that customers want. And finally, in a world that continues to speed up, we have to be able provide that kind of service to customers in a seamless way whether it's with sales or service.
Are Ford dealers profitable? Do you expect to be profitable in 2011?
Dealer profits for 2010 and those projected for 2011 are up compared to the last two years.
I absolutely expect to have a successful year in 2011 and the dealer body in general will have a much better year in 2011 than it's had in prior years. We've continued to make business adjustments, have better products and streamline our service business to help customers and when you add all those together we should see progress in profits for 2011.
Are Ford dealers making money on new-vehicle sales?
In the truck and SUV segment dealers still have the opportunity to be profitable. But when it comes to the car segment the profit margins are much more narrow. That market is just a competitive market to be in.
What are you doing to attract more service business?
I'm trying to do an even better job taking care of the service customers I have. The greatest way to get a new customer is to take care of the customers you have so that they refer their friends and family to us.
If we tell you that your vehicle will be done tomorrow at noon, it had better be done at 11 a.m.
If you buy a vehicle at our company, we'll provide you a loaner car any time your vehicle is in our service department. That's very common in the luxury world, but not so much in the domestic world.
I've extended my service hours. We're now open 10 hours a day; it used to be only eight hours.
I'm hiring additional staff to speed up my repair time. I'm adding 25 technicians to my service team so I can expand my capacity.
We're also looking at how we're handling all of our processes to make them more efficient and customer friendly. For example, by the middle of this year, customers can go online to check the status of their vehicle, schedule a service appointment and communicate with our team.
What are you doing to attract more F&I business?
I think the question really is: What are we doing to provide more valuable products to our customers?
We looked at a new product that is a door edge guard. If a customer opens a car door in the parking lot, it protects the door from dings. We're looking at products that provide value to the customer. If we look at more F&I business, the focus is on us, but if we look at what products the customers need, then the focus is on the customer.
Is it difficult to get Ford customers financed?
It's not at all difficult. Ford Credit has been an exceptional partner for Ford dealers. I'd say it's been one of our best strategic assets we have as we've gone through a tough economy.
What does Ford need to do to help you sell more vehicles?
The main responsibility that Ford can continue to fulfill is provide cutting-edge, quality products.
What's missing in the lineup?
There are a lot of wants or desires; I don't think there's anything missing. The vehicles we have and the vehicles that will be launched in 2011 really represent a great lineup.
Is Ford's advertising attracting your target buyer? Is anyone being left out?
Ford attracts great buyers to the dealerships. But the challenge we continue to face is this: How do we continue to encourage people who've not driven a Ford lately to come into a Ford dealership and drive one?
Many consumers, when they envision a Ford Taurus sedan, would not believe it's the vehicle we have in our dealership today. But the Taurus today rivals any sedan in any dealership, standard or luxury, in the country.
The challenge is to get customers to continue to look at Ford even though in the past it may not have been a consideration.