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Ford sounds warning to retail 'freeloaders'

Two senior Ford of Europe executives issued warnings to dealers ahead of the announcement about big losses. Ford European president and chief executive David Thursfield had a message for the network: “Treat our customers in an exemplary fashion or don't expect to be one of our retailers forever. We can't afford freeloaders.”

Earl Hesterberg, the company's head of marketing, sales and service in Europe, said dealers were slow to exploit the company's lean car order and delivery system.

Both executives made clear they made no distinction in their comments between UK and mainland Europe dealers. Outlining his “Darwinian approach” to customer satisfaction, Mr Thursfield said: “People have to come with us when we build the brand. Dealership facilities and services are core to that. Dealers must evolve with us: there is no choice.”

Mr Thursfield had noticed no consumer backlash to the termination from March of Ford car output in the UK and ruled out a change of policy.

“I have taken 600,000 units of production out of Ford's European system and still have spare capacity,” he said. “We are still perceived as a British firm and our gross domestic product in Britain will be greater than before the Dagenham re-organisation.”

He said Ford's “radical” Focus-based compact MPV would not go on sale until early 2003, after a debut at next autumn's Paris motor show.

Mr Thursfield tacitly conceded Renault's Scenic and Vauxhall's Zafira wrong-footed Ford which dropped an earlier design.

Ford will soon be without a coupe. Puma production ends in Cologne at the end of this year, following the withdrawal of the US-built Cougar.

Mr Thursfield would not say whether the Focus-based Start coupe shown by Pininfarina was the basis of a successor. Start is a static styling exercise and not a running protype. Pininfarina will build Ford's StreetKa roadster from 2003.

Earl Hesterberg said Start was “not totally a blue skies car”.

Referring to the benefits of increasingly flexible manufacturing and computerised ordering, Mr Hesterberg said: “Teaching dealers to use it has been a bit slow. We would like more of them to swap cars so the customers can get their cars faster, with more precise timing.”

Surveys showed cars delivered on time left buyers twice as satisfied as those who received them a week later. Mr Hesterberg said Ford was reducing order to delivery times for “special hot orders” from 60 to 15 days.

In the UK regional stock holding centres and computer links between dealers and plants allowed specifications to be changed up to seven days before cars started to be built. He said morale among dealers had risen last year, partially due to more emphasis on “new blue-oval products, the brand, and retailing profitability”.

Ford had made significant progress in raising the public's perception of the brand and a UK survey showed only Volkswagen was ahead among volume manufacturers. Ford failed to “eclipse” VW on only four quality-related parameters out of 16 brand judgements. (September 27, 2001)

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