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Geoff Polites: True Blue

Champion: The former Ford Oz, Ford of Europe and Jaguar Land Rover chief was also an avid AFL fan.

We salute the man who turned Ford Australia around with Territory and the BA Falcon

General News logo22 Apr 2008

GEOFF Polites became a grandfather for the first time in the same week that he died of cancer.

It was fitting that he lived to see his grand-daughter because Geoff’s family played such a key role in the direction of what was a unique career for someone who attained such lofty roles within the Ford Motor Company.

Indeed, he put his children ahead of what was turning out to be a stellar career at Ford – by leaving Ford so they could be brought up in Australia.

Little did he realise that he would wind up running Ford Australia and then work his way through top marketing and sales positions in Ford of Europe to wind up in charge of Jaguar and Land Rover.

I first met Geoff in 1974 at the magazine launch of the TD Cortina.

He had been rolled out as a young product planner into the more benign and relaxed long-lead launch of the car – training wheels for facing the full motoring media in years to come.

We must have been easy on him because years later Geoff Polites, as president, would usher in the best era of media contact between the motoring press and Ford Australia in memory.

Along with other young Turks at Ford, David Fewchuck and Ian Vaughan, he made his way though the Broadmeadows hierarchy in which they came up with schemes like the Escort Little Ripper – which was a special edition.

Geoff was told to come up with a way to clear Ford of stocks of about 900 optional eight-track cartridge players that were being creamed by cassettes and were not selling. They decided the only way to sell the eight-tracks was to build a limited-edition around them.

They designed a Little Ripper decal and made the eight-track the main feature of the limited edition of, co-incidentally, just 900 cars.

It cleared the eight-tracks but still lost money. He confessed at the time that the only way Ford could make money on an Escort was with a 2.0-litre engine and factory-fitted air-conditioning.

80 center imageFor many people, Geoff’s detour into the world of car retailing for 11 years, just as he was being earmarked for overseas posts, seemed like a strange direction to take.

He had been offered the job as managing director of Ford of Taiwan and with it came a dilemma. An international career at Ford or the Polites youngsters growing up as Aussie kids? To Geoff and his wife Linda there was no contest.

He told me at the time: If you live in Australia your kids are going to be educated and grow up as Australians.

It didn’t make sense to uproot the family and have them growing up in other countries in which most of the inhabitants would give their eye teeth to have their children growing up in Australia.

But turning down an overseas post in a company like Ford was not going to be a great career move.

Geoff was general sales manager at Ford at the time and pretty much in daily contact with the man who sold more Fords in Australia than anyone else – Nick Polites of the Sydney-based City Ford.

Nick Polites (no relation) knew talent when he saw it and hired Geoff from out of the factory.

Normally that would have been the end of it. But it was the 11 years on the concrete running Ford dealerships that prompted Jac Nasser, who was then running the Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, to offer Geoff the job of running Ford Australia as its president.

Everything in business is timing. In the late 1990s, Ford Australia was being unhinged by the Ford program to buy dealerships and set up retail joint-ventures with participating dealers as co-investors in key markets.

Ford dealers were so focused on whether they would sell or invest or do nothing that they forgot about selling cars at a time when the AU Falcon was being poorly received and needed the traditional strength of the Ford network to “move the iron”.

What made Geoff so appealing to Nasser was his background in production planning (anyone who could get away with the Little Ripper was worth a look) and his knowledge of factory wholesaling. Nasser reckoned Geoff knew what the AU needed to restore Falcon’s prospects.

More important was his knowledge of retailing and the respect he had built with his fellow Ford dealers. That was going to be important in navigating through the upheaval that the RJVs were causing.

In short, there was no-one anywhere in the Ford world more qualified to run Ford Australia at that time than Geoff Polites so he sold his shares in City Ford and he was brought back into corporate Ford.

So, without realising it would happen, he got it all. His family grew up as Aussies and he went on to the top in a career at Ford.

When he left Ford Australia for Europe we were joking about the fact that corporate Ford would probably expect him to do something like an MBA. But he reckoned he had a better qualification. AFL.

As an Aussie Rules umpire, he was expected to keep the lid on an explosive mix of 36 hugely-built men fired up with high expectations, charged up with testosterone and egos, all stretching the rule book to and beyond the limit and happy to argue the toss with a fellow half their size.

Within this cauldron he was making split-second decisions by which a club’s prospects could live or die with millions of dollars at stake. All this in front of up to 100,000 people for whom hurling abuse at the man in white was part of the sport.

Geoff loved it, of course. He saw umpiring and football as a great source of management inspiration. From participating at close quarters on the field he saw that football was a process - a set of rules, a set of procedures and tactics.

When we talked about business he would say: Look after the processes and the tactics and the numbers take care of themselves.

And that’s how he played it. At City Ford, at Ford Australia, at Ford of Europe and at Jaguar and Land Rover.

Geoff was a great bloke and anyone brought up in Australia knows that is the best you can say of a man. The final siren came too soon.

Read more:

Vale Geoff Polites: ‘an inspiration to us all’

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