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McAllister: '2000 is toughest year'

There was an immediate answer when Ian McAllister was invited to identify the most demanding 12 months in his reign as boss of Ford in the UK.

“This year, without doubt, has been the toughest,” said the chairman and managing director of Ford of Britain who, on January 1, will start his 10th year heading the country's No1 car seller.

Mr McAllister will bound into 2001 with the same vigour which saw him through this year and its succession of challenges. He reeled them off: prices (and fighting the 'rip-off Britain' campaign), dotcom newcomers, Dagenham's racial disputes, the decision to end Dagenham's life as a car assembly plant, the Dome and a collapse in residual values.

For each, he has an appraisal, no doubt honed during meetings in his large office on the sixth floor of Ford of Britain's headquarters at Warley, Essex. From one window he can see the Millennium Dome which (until December 31) houses Ford's Journey Zone.

Mr McAllister was convinced from the outset that Ford's £12m investment in the controversial Greenwich enterprise was wise and says market research proved it. This was, anyway, one of his lesser challenges because the preparation work was completed and the budget allocated before the beginning of 2000.

More testing has been issues like the Competition Commission inquiry and report into new car prices. “I decided to lead from the front on the prices inquiry to stop it tieing up the whole organisation,” he said.

Mr McAllister pressed the case that UK prices were not excessive but, like other manufacturer bosses, announced cuts after the Government accepted the Commission's “10-12% too high” judgement.

“Our dealers and others expected retail buyers to come rushing back but it did not happen like that,” he said. “There was always the danger they would be left waiting to see if we would reduce prices further.”

Trade Secretary Stephen Byers' Parliamentary Order insists franchised dealers are offered the same discount as fleet customers, and when asked about Ford's response he talked more rapidly. He likes getting down to detail.

Trying to meet the requirement of Government, while addressing the demands of dealers, fleet operators and consumers, is the sort of intellectual challenge he relishes. Ford has moved the retail and fleet prices closer, while attempting to protect its own position. But Mr McAllister rejects the notion this has happened in a way “that keeps everyone happy”.

Asked about issues surrounding the Fiesta plant at Dagenham, a few miles away where Essex meets east London, Mr McAllister reruns an explanation of Ford's significant over-capacity in Europe, and its global intolerance of racial or any other form of harassment.

Dagenham's conversion to an engine plant in 2002 means Ford will cease to build cars with its own badge in Britain, though there will be three Jaguar assembly plants.

Mr McAllister – a blue-oval man throughout his career – insists this will not cause a problem. “Our research shows that Ford is a strong brand in the UK and we will build on that,” he said. “And the acquisition of Volvo and Land Rover means Ford has a strong family of manufacturers, when brands are becoming so important.” He has a drawing of a Lincoln Continental on the wall behind him.

For at least five years, rumours have bounced around the industry that 'McAllister's on the way out'. He faced questions about possible retirement (he is 57) when colleagues heard he and his wife had bought a holiday home in Marbella.

Mrs McAllister, who he says has become used to his working days of at least 12 hours after 35 years, might have ideas about them dividing time between Spain and rural Essex.

But not yet. Mr McAllister has his sights set on January 1, 2002, when he would complete 10 years as Ford's UK boss which would be a considerable achievement. Mr McAllister has no hobbies but enjoys taking the family dog for a walk.

Even he, though, needs the occasional break well away from an office where there is a hard surface behind his desk. Mr McAllister likes to turn in his chair and move to a computer screen where he can scan news websites, check the Ford share price and get an update on currency rates.

Holidays are a problem when Ford chief executive Jac Nasser can call an urgent meeting at any time of the year. “Owning a place is the only way you can be sure of taking a holiday while fitting in with Jac's schedule,” he said.

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