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Ford Australia pitches in as virus crisis escalates
Talks underway to leverage Ford’s local expertise as global product programs roll on
26 Mar 2020
By TERRY MARTIN
FORD Australia is engaged in high-level talks with federal government agencies to leverage its expertise in design, engineering and manufacturing to help speed production of essential medical equipment as the coronavirus pandemic escalates.
In an interview with GoAuto, Ford Australia and New Zealand president and CEO Kay Hart said the company is also working closely with its Detroit headquarters and Ford in the UK to learn from those countries’ experience at a more advanced stage of the crisis in order to apply this at a local level.
This is not just in terms of potentially helping produce specialist components and more general personal protective equipment, but how to best manage and continue operating in both a corporate and retail setting.
The New Zealand experience, which has this week seen the country go into full lockdown and leave Ford’s 31 dealerships “on call” to assist essential service workers only, is similarly providing a benchmark for the Australian HQ and its 180-strong dealer network, which is bracing for comparable measures to be implemented as Australia moves to higher stages in its response to the pandemic.
Crucially for not only Ford but local and global suppliers and consumers alike, Ms Hart revealed that Ford’s Australian-based Asia-Pacific Product Development Centre (APPDC) is continuing to work on all programs – including the forthcoming new-generation T7 Ranger and derivatives – without delay.
She said there was minimal disruption required for the more than 2000 employees from Ford Australia’s head office in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond and its sites at Broadmeadows, Geelong and the You Yangs proving ground to be set up to work remotely and securely on their top-secret programs.
Add in staff from its regional offices in other states and this equates to about 75 per cent of Ford’s total Australian corporate workforce.
But this is not a case of ‘business as usual’, and Ms Hart emphasised that the company had quickly mobilised its recently established innovation team to work with government agencies in order to leverage the company’s local and global expertise and advanced processes and equipment for use in fighting COVID-19.
“We have been in contact with the government here and we’re actively working on how we could support them in all of their efforts in potentially a range of different ways,” she said.
“We have put that to them and we’re in discussions with them to understand how we can make use of the great team that we have here, so that we can add value based on what we’re learning and what we’re doing in the US and UK and obviously what the specific needs are here in Australia.”
Ms Hart said it was too early to specify those “different ways” in which the company could assist the medical field, emphasising that “we are working through that at the moment”.
“We have an amazing team of engineers, designers, innovators … a great amount of ‘brainpower’ here to support the cause in Australia,” she said.
“I think we all have a role to play in that and our team is ultra-set in terms of what we might be able to support.
“We’ve had some great discussions with the government, and obviously a number of industries and organisations have also – we hopefully have a very big role to play, and we’ll work with them on what exactly that may be.
“We could have a role to play from an innovation standpoint, engineering standpoint, manufacturing, assembly, we just have a great deal of skillset here with our Australian-based team, and also access to some great knowledge from around the world and from our point it’s a matter of sharing that knowledge that we’ve been able to get from our colleagues in the US and the UK.”
Ms Hart said work had not slowed down at the APPDC as a result of coronavirus-related issues, whether in Australasia or with its partner companies worldwide.
“We already operate in a world which is very virtual and remote with all of regional offices and teams throughout the world,” she said.
“It was probably only the first day when we were transitioning everyone and moving equipment to peoples’ homes that there was obviously some time spent there in getting set up, but we’ve had such great support from our IT team to really enable us to move very quickly.
“So at this stage, there are no interruptions to any of the work that we are doing from the design studio, from a testing, research and program development standpoint – other than the initial one day in getting set up.
“I would say more than 2000 of our team now would have fully moved from our corporate facilities to working remotely. Obviously we still have our core team, especially our warehouse team and some of our testing centres etcetera that we still have teams on-site for, but over 2000 of us have now successfully moved to working remotely.
“We’ve got some great infrastructure and IT solutions that mean we can continue to deliver on all of our business requirements without interruption.”
When asked about Ford’s preparedness for Australia going into full lockdown – which could see the closure of its vast dealer network across the nation – Ms Hart said the company was working as part of the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI) to ensure government understood the essential nature of its retail business.
“I’m sure as the government has already announced, there will be further restrictions placed on at some stage across all industries, and our dealerships will be ready and supportive of implementing whatever policies and restrictions the government puts in place,” she said.
“We believe that the operation of our dealerships, and the service and repair centres and all of the supply chain that go with that are critical and define what we believe are essential services for the community.
“And we’ll be ready to act on and implement that at that time.
“We have already taken a number of additional steps in our dealerships in terms of ensuring it’s a very safe, hygienic and sanitised environment for our customers … and for our (dealer) teams.
“We’re also looking at new ways to interact with customers in these new environments – we’re looking at how to offer pick up and deliveries for more service vehicles, or for sale of new cars, we can do that remotely, in terms of bringing it from the dealership for you, things like that.”
As to how its dealerships in New Zealand were faring, Ms Hart said they were all “in essence, closed” but remained on call to assist with sales, service and repair of vehicles for customers who are deemed essential workers.
“Our dealerships remain on call and all of our customer support services are still fully operational in New Zealand,” she said. “We also have a team at our parts warehouse who are on call to ensure supply of parts that are needed for essential workers.
“We’re very early into it. We’re learning as we go, making sure we abide by the restrictions that the government has put in place, but still ensuring that we’re there for our customers to help them through this time.”
Ms Hart acknowledged that New Zealand’s actions were instructive for how the situation might play out in Australia, but added: “In truth, we’re in dialogue as well with other Ford teams around the world as to what they’re learning. It’s all such a unique situation; various markets at various stages of lockdown and restrictions, and just how they are managing.
“We’re learning as we go also from them as to best practices they may be implementing. We’re gaining as much knowledge as we can to ensure we operate as efficiently as possible in the event of any changes to the (Australian) restrictions.”
When asked about her level of concern for the viability of Ford’s retail partners in Australia should the country move to full lockdown, Ms Hart said: “There’s no doubt that this is an extremely tough environment for the industry as a whole, for the retail network as a whole.
“What we’re making sure we do is obviously act as their support, to communicate … and work through how we can help them in these times, making sure they have the tools etc to operate remotely under whatever circumstances they have, and we’ve been sharing best practices with them from around the world.”
Ms Hart said Ford Australia’s vehicle stock was sufficient to meet current customer demand, but the global pandemic had created “such a fluid situation” that there was no way of knowing whether supplies would be affected later in the year.
Disruptions are expected given production plants across the world have already closed, but the Ford Australia chief said no scheduled product arrivals had been delayed at this stage.
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