For Ford dealers, 2012 is going to be a very big year indeed. Redesigned versions of the Escape crossover and Fusion mid-sized sedan will be introduced in the second half of the year, both featuring sleek new designs and loaded with technology.
They are the next-best selling Fords behind the perennial leader, the F-series pickup. Ford is offering both the Escape and the Fusion with a broad array of powertrains, including three four-cylinder gasoline engines, a hybrid and a plug-in hybrid.
These new Fords will be offered with the kinds of technology previously found only in the luxury segment, such as adaptive cruise control and Ford's "Lane Keeping" technology.
Both also will offer the latest generation of Ford's controversial MyFord Touch infotainment system. Ford is shipping software upgrades to customers who bought vehicles with the first generation of the system. Dealers expect many customers will ask for help in installing the upgrades, which come in the form of a USB drive.
Collin Sewell's family has been representing Ford since his great-grandfather started selling Model T's out of the family hardware store in Arlington, Texas, in 1912. The Sewell family has operated the Ford-Lincoln store in Odessa since 1935.
These days, pickups rule at Sewell's dealership -- he sells 10 trucks for every car in truck-happy west Texas.
Sewell became chairman of the Ford National Dealer Council in November 2010 and was elected to a second term in November 2011. Normally his term would expire at the NADA convention, but Sewell felt there was still work to be done and asked to serve longer. He will leave the post in August.
Sewell talked with Staff Reporter Bradford Wernle.
How was last year for Ford dealers?
I think 2011 will go down in history books as one of best recovery years in the history of the U.S. auto industry. We saw a really nice increase in business year-over-year and a really nice increase in the quality of our products.
What are the major issues facing Ford dealers this year?
Any business always finds it a challenge to repeat a successful year. The No. 1 thing dealers have to face is: How do we repeat or improve on the year we just had? How do we continue to manage and lead our businesses in what remains an uncertain economy?
What's going right with the Ford brand these days?
No. 1 is tremendous leadership within the company. No. 2 is a commitment to exceptional products. No. 3 is a renewed interest in working closely with the dealers.
Ford has a lot of new product coming this year, including a new Escape, Fusion, C-Max Hybrid, Focus Electric and Focus SVT. How will dealers cope with all those new vehicles?
The dealers are excited about all the new product. At the end of the day when we have the new product that customers love, that drives the energy and excitement. That poses some challenges of product training and product knowledge, but when you're excited about a new product, learning about it is exciting.
Ford is emphasizing technology. How do dealers keep up?
We as dealer council have encouraged Ford to remain an automotive leader in technology because we want to continue to be innovators. If you really look, what we did when Henry Ford invented the Model T -- he was an innovator of technology. That has been the hallmark of the company for 100 years. Whether that's MyFord Touch or Sync, we want to be innovators. That has created a steep learning curve. We have to have great training from the company, which we have. In my store I have a MyFord Touch concierge. He's available six days a week to answer any questions about their MyFord Touch system.
Ford is sending customers USB drives with an improved version of MyFord Touch. Are customers bringing those drives in and asking dealers to install them?
Customers will have two great options. They can do a self-install, or Ford dealers will stand ready to do that. I think there's no doubt that people don't want to make unwanted trips anywhere. But the reality is that it's our responsibility to be ready to help them. The nice thing about this upgrade is it won't require the traditional service process where you have to bring it in and leave it. In most cases, it should be a very simple installation where we install it while the customer waits.
How do dealers like Ford's advertising spots? Many of them show people offering testimonials about the vehicles. Do the spots work?
Overall, the message that Ford has sent over the last couple of years is that it's a different company producing a really exceptional product. And so, overall, I am really pleased with the message they've sent out to our community. If you look at how Ford really survived and thrived through the economic downturn, they showed we were a different kind of company.
Ford had some issues with inventory shortages in 2011. Are dealers getting enough cars these days?
There's always this balance between having not too much and not too few vehicles in stock. What none of us really expected was the additional energy and excitement around our car products. We have seen the Ford Focus and Fiesta fly out of our showrooms. So that's a great problem to have. I think the company has worked really diligently to provide all the product we need. In many cases we still have inventory shortages in many of our stores. But the good news is that it's not so much of a production issue; it's a sales issue. What we have to do is find a way to ramp up production.
How is the Focus doing? Is the car priced too high for some of your traditional customers?
I would love to have more of them. It is just a great product. I have had two customers that have traded in luxury sedans and purchased the Focus in its place. For the money it is tremendous value.
Are there any holes in Ford's lineup?
As the Ranger goes away, that could create a small gap for some dealers. We get to sell the regular-cab EcoBoost F series. I would hope that a mid-sized pickup would be a consideration in the future.
The Escape and Fusion have been drastically redesigned, but many Ford customers liked the traditional designs. Is Ford going too far with the new look?
I think the new Escape is absolutely a home run. The Fusion is one of the most beautiful cars I've ever seen. It has a chance to be the best-selling car in America. It's like a baby Aston Martin.
Are you OK with Ford's decision to drop the hybrid version of the Escape for the next generation and put the hybrid in the C-Max?
I understand the business decision. We as dealers would hope that for the next generation there would be a hybrid.
The F series keeps on cruising as the leading pickup and the only vehicle that had U.S. sales of more than 500,000 last year. You're in truck country. Do you see truck sales continuing their momentum?
Absolutely. The new EcoBoost creates an opportunity where people can have their cake and eat it too. What EcoBoost represents is V-8 power with V-6 efficiency. We had our doubts initially because we were really concerned that buyers would consider a V-6. But people drive the truck, and they're amazed.
Facilities requirements that manufacturers are imposing on dealers have been a big issue. Where does that debate stand at Ford?
There's no mandate from the company regarding facilities. I serve as one of the leaders in what I would call the consumer experience movement. It's an opportunity for dealers who want to improve the processes and the culture within their stores to partner with Ford and some external consultants we've partnered with to look at how we improve our operations. Rather than facilities, the focus has been on how we can help dealers improve their operations. What has been really refreshing for me is that the leadership at Ford recognizes that every dealership operates slightly different than their competitors. So the consumer experience movement is always a customized approach in how the dealer wants to operate their business. c