As some encouraging signs start to emerge from Ford Motor's turnaround plan, much of the credit is likely to go to Mark Fields.
Fields, an executive vice president, is Ford's domestic car and truck chief. But he's not as stiff as his title might make him sound: His cellphone ring tone plays a song from the old rock group AC/DC.
Ford surprised analysts by posting a $100 million first-quarter profit. It did it, in part, by cutting 40,000 jobs since 2005 and vowing to better coordinate its production around the world. One show of confidence came from billionaire Kirk Kerkorian, who announced he has taken a 4.7% stake in Ford stock and signaled he intends to buy more.
Ford's ongoing Way Forward recovery plan — with full-year profitably promised for 2009 — has run head-on into an economic slump that has hammered sales across the industry.
High gas prices have caused buyers to demand more small cars, which are less profitable in general than the big SUVs that have powered Ford's earnings for years. Its next all-new small entry, Fiesta, won't come to market in the USA until 2010.
Meanwhile, the company is mounting a major effort to attract potential buyers who it believes have written off the Ford brand entirely. A new "Drive One" ad barrage aims to get more shoppers into a Ford for a test drive.
Fields spoke with USA TODAY auto reporter Chris Woodyard at a nostalgic car show, Fabulous Fords Forever, in the parking lot of the Knott's Berry Farm theme park in Buena Park last month. His comments were condensed and edited for clarity.
Q: You've said that you see opportunity to make small cars profitable. How is that coming?
A: In the past, (small) was "cheap and cheerful" — just give somebody some basic transportation. That's changed now because small is not only practical, but it also could connote "image" if you do it right. And that's why we spent so much time on the design of the Fiesta and the features of it, so it's a no-excuse car for people.
Q: Are you frustrated you can't bring Fiesta to market faster?
A: Sure we're frustrated, but in a positive way. What we wanted to do when we came out in the marketplace with a small car, a B-size car, we want to come out with a no-excuses car that really represents where Ford is heading. And sure, I would love it today. I would have loved it yesterday. But we want to do it right. And I won't say we'll be last to the party, but we're sure going to be best dressed.
Q: How big is gas a consideration in buying a car?
A: It's a secular shift. Once in a lifetime.
Q: How is that playing out when it comes to sales?
A: Our trucks and SUVs are down, but our cars and crossovers are up a lot. So we've based our (analysis) on looking at the segment shifts. The pickups will come back, but not to the extent they did three or four years ago. But it does offer us opportunities on the car side and crossovers.
Q: What have gas prices done to Ford's "Way Forward" plan?
A: We're on plan. Last year we were actually ahead of plan. But we always build a degree of flexibility into the Way Forward plan. And one of the hallmarks of it is as we see changes in the external market, we'll adjust and we'll continue to do that because we're not going to walk away from our milestones.
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