Ford Motor Co. CEO Jim Hackett has promised to be more visible and accessible to dealers after spending much of his first year consumed with getting the automaker in better shape. He made the comments to about 130 of Ford's top U.S. dealers during a meeting in Orlando that largely focused on the company's plan to remove all sedans from its lineup — a decision that caught many of them off guard when it was revealed in April.
Hackett said he wished he could have met with more dealers sooner and explained that his time since being named CEO in May 2017 was focused on developing a plan to improve Ford's operational fitness, according to people who were in the room. He promised to attend an October dealer gathering in Las Vegas and in recent weeks has met with dealers in Houston, California and other areas of the country.
The Orlando meeting, which dealers and company officials say was positive, included significant discussion about the plan to eliminate sedans in favor of more lucrative utility vehicles. Ford has said it's aiming for the industry's freshest lineup by 2020, with pickups, vans and utilities representing roughly 90 percent of its volume. The only cars remaining are the Mustang and upcoming Focus Active wagon.
Ford showed dealers the new products that will replace those sedans. They saw video renderings of a small off-road SUV as well as a battery electric crossover tentatively called the Mach 1, as well as physical prototypes of the next-generation Escape, Explorer, Lincoln Corsair and a Continental with suicide doors, according to those in the room.
"When you have a decision this big, there's going to be some concern," Mark LaNeve, Ford's vice president of U.S. marketing, sales and service, told Automotive News. "We understand that, but we're working real hard and the vast, vast majority of dealers are solidly behind what we're doing."
How Ford announced the sedan decision — as part of its first-quarter earnings call with no prior input from its dealer council — was a point of contention for some. Ford kept dealers in the dark, LaNeve said, because it enters a quiet period before its earnings when it doesn't discuss decisions that could impact the stock price.
Some asked Ford to consider keeping the Fusion name, an idea they said the company seemed receptive to, potentially as a crossover-styled vehicle after 2021. Still others asked for assurances that they wouldn't cede entry-level vehicle sales to rival brands.
"Any brand that you've spent hundreds of millions of development, you've got to keep it," said Rhett Ricart, CEO of Ricart Automotive Group in Groveport, Ohio, and a Ford dealer council member. "It's a pretty damn great car. Maybe that's what's so frustrating. But they might surprise you — have a Fusion that's more competitive or is maybe a different type of layout."
Since the April 25 sedan announcement, Ford has worked to address concerns. LaNeve said he hosted roughly 20 conference calls on April 26 with dealers from all of Ford's U.S. regions. Jim Farley, Ford's vice president of global markets, gave media interviews explaining Ford intended to reinvent sedans with a different silhouette, not kill them.
The Orlando meeting in late May was an annual gathering of high-volume and award-winning retailers known as One Ford Elite. Hackett, Farley and LaNeve were joined by Joe Hinrichs, Ford's vice president of global operations, and Lincoln President Joy Falotico.
Ricart said Hackett spoke "deeply and emotionally" and was right to focus on larger corporate issues before turning his attention to Ford's retail network. Ricart said there are always opportunities to communicate better but noted that it's an area where Ford traditionally receives leading scores on an annual survey by the National Automobile Dealers Association.