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New Ford boss aims to change perception

Renewed push: Newly launched models such as the Mondeo will receive a marketing push to highlight technology advances and fuel consumption gains.

Whickman looks to fill Ford’s ‘perception gap’ in Australia, recommits to 2016 exit

4 May 2015

FORD Australia’s new president and CEO Graeme Whickman has vowed to work harder to improve public perception of the American brand, with the hope of winning back the respect of Australian buyers it has lost in recent years.

The company announced in May 2013 that it would shut its Australian manufacturing operations by October 2016, ending a 90-year run of building cars in Australia as it shifts to a national sales company and full-line importer.

But despite efforts to inform consumers that the Blue Oval brand will continue to sell cars in Australia, Mr Whickman admitted there was still a “perception gap”, with many people of the belief the company is pulling out of Australia altogether.

The former vice-president of marketing, sales and service, who took the reins from Bob Graziano last month, told journalists at the Focus ST launch last week that the car-maker was sticking to its original timeline for its plant closures, and that despite a drop in overall sales in recent years, the company is tracking well against internal targets.

“If you go and ask consumers at the moment, many of them believe Ford is shutting down in totality,” he said.

“We are not shutting down, and we will work all the way through to October 2016, that’s our plan. Our sales numbers may be modest in terms of what they look historically, but they are bang on our plan. We are actually a little bit ahead of what we had as a plan.

“There seems to be constant speculation around that and it is getting to the point of being water off a duck’s back because as long as I have our internal targets, I am all good. I am well ahead of those. We are going to close in a way that is dignified and respectful.” Mr Whickman said he took the top job at Ford Australia with the aim of leading the company during a time of transition, and highlighted his desire for renewed respect for the brand Down Under.

“I came here – and I had the opportunity to do a number of things and I actually chose to come to Australia – because I wanted to be a part of a turnaround. So I want my group, our group, all the employees, to be part of a turnaround that drives us to a level of respect that perhaps we don’t have as much right now,” he said.

“I want to be part of a brand that is a lot more dynamic. And I want the brand to live up to the products and the people. So our people and our products aren’ t actually reflected as well as they should be in what people think about the Ford brand right now.” Mr Whickman highlighted the work Ford is doing in conjunction with government agencies to support its manufacturing workforce that will be out of job come October 2016.

“The investment we have made in the millions in the last 18 months in conjunction with some of the government bodies, and the number of jobs we have either created or got commitment to create – go see if anybody else is doing that,” he said.

“The one thing that jars me a little bit is the perception of the way we are treating people because I can sleep at night at the way we are treating people. We have had very honest, transparent, consistent dialogue with all our employees. Whilst there is always a human impact, I think we have treated them respectfully.

“Even telling people that in not that long a period of time, we are going to be the biggest employer in the country in terms of automotive. Nobody will be able to usurp that. Not that it’s chest beating, it’s just a tangible, factual, rational point that demonstrates that the brand is committed to the country and it’s enduring and long-standing.” Ford sales have fallen from 135,000 units in 2004, when it held a 14.2 per cent market share, to 79,703 and a 7.2 per cent share in 2014. Sales have dived further this year, with the car-maker sitting at 16,402 for the first three months of 2015, an 18.5 per cent drop compared with the same period last year and only good enough for seventh place overall.

Mr Whickman said the company was sticking with its plan to transform from a fleet-friendly large-car brand in a bid to appeal to private buyers.

“We are doing less than five per cent of the rental sales we did not that many years ago. We are just stripping away our business in such a way that we are going to build the right foundation,” he said.

Ford has a number of models in run-out, including the Ranger ute that will be replaced with a facelifted version in the coming months, as well as the Focus that is in short supply ahead of the launch in the third quarter of the revised version.

Mr Whickman highlighted new-generation or significantly upgraded models such as the recently launched Mondeo mid-sizer and the updated Kuga SUV as products that will soon receive a targeted marketing push, focusing on environmental credentials and technology features.

He is also hoping that other models set to launch between now and the end of the year, such as the wider Focus range, the Mustang pony car and the Everest SUV, will help change the current perception of the brand.

“Whether it’s technology or that green element, because some of the things consumers might think about us in this market is around gas guzzling, for example. Every vehicle we bring in this year is going to absolutely 100 per cent dispel any notion about gas guzzling.” Mr Whickman said the recent departure of general manager of sales and marketing David Katic was not related to the company’s drop in sales, and was instead a decision made by Mr Katic to move on from the role to pursue new interests.

He added that the company is continuing with the marketing plan that Mr Katic helped develop, which includes the launch of 20 new or updated models by 2020.

“From a thousand miles when you get it down to a mile away you realise there is no suspicion, there is no conspiracy. It was time for David to move on and he made an assessment of what he wanted to do. He had been in the job for six or seven years. And he had been part of cooking the ingredients that we have got today and that hasn’t changed in terms of before or after he left,” he said.

“In my first talk to the assembled team (my message) has been: Can I just establish and be very clear, the plan isn’t changing. The strategy isn’t changing.”

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