For Ford, 2017 was a year of change.
Not only did the automaker change directions by ousting Mark Fields and installing Jim Hackett as CEO, it overhauled some of its largest, most important vehicles.
The Expedition SUV was redesigned for the first time in two decades and hit dealer lots late last year. So far, demand for it and its sibling, the Lincoln Navigator, have exceeded expectations.
Ford retooled its Super Duty pickups as well, adding an aluminum body and changing the exterior design.
Those vehicles, along with the F-150 pickup, will drive Ford's profits in the near term and help fund Hackett's long-term plans for autonomous and electric vehicles.
Todd Dyer, chairman of the Ford National Dealer Council, said Ford's newest products have come in a sweet spot in the market. Customers can't get enough crossovers and SUVs. And more help is on the way this year with the new EcoSport and freshened Edge.
Dyer, 42, owner of Marshal Mize Ford in Hixon, Tenn., talked with Staff Reporter Michael Martinez.
Q: How was 2017 for Ford dealers?
A: It was a good year. Profits were fourth best in history. We always want to post record profits, but it was a good year. Market share was solid. We launched the new Super Duty, and it was a big hit. It's definitely key to all our successes. With that product launching as smooth as it did, it helped solidify the year.
Some consider Ford's product lineup outdated. What do you think of the state of the showroom?
We've been on a good run. We had a new F-150 launch, the new Super Duty launch, and now the Expedition, which is going to be a major hit. In our store, the first couple that came in here didn't last 48 hours. It looks like we're going to sell every one Ford can build, so I hope they find a few more out there. And as soon as that 2019 Ranger gets into showrooms, there's not a dealer who's going to be able to hang onto that product. The next couple years are pretty rockin' for us on the SUV side. I think we're set up for the next couple years pretty good. They're committed to providing us with products that consumers want and it's going to help our showrooms out in the next couple years, that's for sure.
What was the most important product launch in 2017?
For us, it was the Super Duty. It's vital to Ford's profits and success, but it's also vital to all Ford's dealers. No matter what area of the country you're in, if you miss on a truck launch, it could affect a lot of things inside your stores and employees inside those stores. Ford hit that one out of the park. Nobody really had an issue with the aluminum body. The F-150 as we know launched very well, and that only compounded on Super Duty. Nobody's had any issues. Everybody loves what they got.
The first U.S. EcoSports started arriving in January. What type of customer are you seeing?
There was almost a 40-year age difference between our first two customers. It's very interesting to see a first-time buyer and then someone who's retiring and didn't need their bigger SUV. As we see more arrive, it will be an interesting dynamic to see the consumers. I think we'll see a lot of first-time buyers and I think we'll see people come down in size. We have a base EcoSport that's really well equipped, and we have a higher-end vehicle that has everything you'd need.
This year, the Ford F-150 may be challenged by new trucks from Ram and Chevrolet. Any concern?
There's no doubt everyone would like to knock F-150 off its perch. Chevrolet and Ram are both trying to up their game. When you look at their trucks, they have a good product, but we have a great product. I think our consumers who still buy the F-150, there's a reason they do that. Even if they do go out and shop our competitors, I do believe they come back to the F-150. I think we're still the bar. Ford's going to continue to have Chevy and Ram come at them, and they'll continue to make better product. But every time they do something, we do something to improve our truck. The '18 pickup has enhancements over the '17 pickup. As long as Ford continues to invest in F-150, which they will, we'll have the best product in the marketplace.
What do you think of Ford's decision to replace Mark Fields with Jim Hackett, someone who's never run a car company?
I've met Jim a couple times and he's a great guy. Just because he's not from the car industry doesn't matter. We had a CEO a couple years ago who wasn't from the car industry either and it seemed to work out pretty good. When you spend time with him, you understand what he's trying to get done and how he wants the operational fitness to happen inside Ford. Everybody can read into those terms how they like, but I know Jim wants Ford to move quick and to be better overall for the dealer and consumers and provide the products we need quickly. You can't ask anything from a CEO other than to help us all become better, and that's what Jim's trying to do. As a dealer, I trust in what Ford's trying to get done. I've spent some time with the Ford family and all they want is the best for Ford. You have to trust in the board to make us all become better.
Hackett has said Ford won't invest in cars as much going forward. How tough is it for the car market right now?
I think the consumers obviously are making decisions that are dictating what manufacturers choose to do. I don't care what car brand you're looking at, it appears consumers are looking for CUVs or true SUVs. Although the car market isn't going anywhere, it's super competitive with everybody. A lot of the cars have similar looks and feel, and it appears to me that consumers want something that's different and new. Is the car market tough? Sure, but we still have great product on the Ford side. We're going to continue to sell them. The rate at which we sell, who knows? At the same time, if we continue to invest in where the consumer demand moves, overall as Ford dealers we're going to benefit from that because Ford's investing in those products.
Should Ford follow FCA and leave the small-car business?
I still think there's a place for something in that market. Focus is still in play, Mustang isn't going anywhere. We still need some cars, that's for sure. We just need cars that heavily attract the consumer, that have great features, good engines and transmissions so consumers will come take a look at our products. The car market is super competitive because the car market is shrinking. We need vehicles that stand out.
What's missing from Ford's product lineup?
It will be fun to see what the Bronco is. It's a product we're all looking for. When that comes, we'll be in great shape. We always have to continue to be aware of new entries from other manufacturers and see where that goes, but I think Bronco is the next thing we're all looking to see. Right now we have a good showroom, but we have a lot of great new product coming.
Automakers including Ford have piloted monthly subscription services. Could this model seriously challenge vehicle ownership?
In our market, it's not something we've heard consumers ask for. I think that may be more of an applicable program in major cities. Does it work long term? I don't know. Personally, I want to own my car. I don't just want to borrow it for a week or go from a subscription-based service. But we have to be abreast of what's going on in the marketplace and certain markets mxay accept it and enjoy it. I don't see it being a national-based thing at this point.
Ford is committed to offering modem connections in all of its vehicles. Between this, Sync 3 and driver-assist features, how have customers responded to the new technology inside vehicles?
I think consumers in general, no matter what vehicle they're driving, only use a certain amount of tech in these vehicles. We've come up with so many new products, it takes a seriously good demonstration of the vehicle just to show all the tech that's inside. And we continually bring people back to show them new features on their car they didn't know they had. It's like that new computer you take home, where you know how to work certain pieces of it, but it also does 10 more things you didn't know it did. The first year or two of ownership, most consumers find something new.
How do you address new in-car technology with customers at the dealership?
You have to do it upfront. You have to have your salespeople trained as heavily as you can. You have to make sure they're in and out of the products on a consistent basis. You want to have the consumer absorb what they can absorb during the purchase of the vehicle, but you also want them to come back. Let's find out what you use the most, and then let's show you some other stuff. You can't just turn a vehicle loose and leave it to the consumer, because they won't get the full benefit. You can't just sell them the car. You have to make sure they enjoy their vehicle and enjoy the technology that's in there.
Ford is spending $11 billion to introduce 40 electrified vehicles by 2022. Will consumers want them?
I think every market's different. Some markets are absorbing this information and can't wait for it to come. Other markets probably find it interesting, compelling, but aren't ready to go that way. But I think as manufacturers, you have to be ahead of what's going on. Five years ago, consumers didn't necessarily believe a vehicle would park itself, now you hit a button, it parks itself, and people do it every day. It's just an acceptance level where you see it and see that it works. Do I believe that's going to happen today? No. I think it's going to take a little more time. But over time I think [electrification] will be part of everybody's life and it's something we're all going to have to accept.
Do you have concerns about dealers' role in an autonomous future? What has Ford's leadership team said about that?
Ford's leadership team has been very upfront with their plans and what they see coming. And you feel that we're secure as a dealer body and dealer network. There's plenty of noise in the marketplace with what could happen, but if you focus on just the noise you may come to the conclusion that we might not have a role. But when you spend time with the executives, and see these plans, you know that we're not going anywhere. Will some things change in our world? Sure. But they've changed over the last 20 years, too. We just adapt. We're part of the solution for the future.
How could Ford better help its dealers?
I think right now, we're at a really good time where the factory's listening. Right now they're trying to do everything they can to assist us in making this business better. Yes, there's always things Ford can improve to help the dealers, but right now we're in a great climate. We have to work together to make sure we're all on the same page.
What do you want to accomplish as council chairman?
I just want to make things better than what they were yesterday. If you can do that and feel like you've had an impact when you're done, then we've done our job. And I feel like we're going to get that job done in 2018.
What do you think your biggest challenge will be in 2018?
To stay grounded to the process. There's always plenty of noise that would love to distract anybody from what we're getting done. And we're having too much success to get distracted.