When Ford Motor Company celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2003, many observed that the company had seen better days. Big debts, bad publicity, quality issues and management shakeups all seemed to gang up on Detroit's perennial number two automaker. In mid-2004, the company is showing renewed signs of life.
A man named Phil Martens visited Washington recently, to present a company overview to the Washington Automotive Press Association. Mr. Martens' title at Ford is group vice president for product creation, North America. His job is to oversee the design, engineering and development of all Ford, Lincoln and Mercury cars and light trucks sold in North America.
Mr. Martens told the journalists he came home to America from a stint as managing director and product planner for Mazda in Japan to find the U.S. now has what he calls seven indigenous auto manufacturers.
"You have The Big Three, of which The Big Three now is not what it was five to six years ago," he says. "It's GM, Ford and probably Toyota. You have DCX [DaimlerChrysler], Hyundai, Nissan and Honda. And all of these are companies that are looking at the United States as one of the last great markets for profitability."
While Ford is the North American leader in light truck sales, Phil Martens acknowledges the company's cars have suffered from a lack of attention.
"We haven't been solid in the car market for many years," he explains. "And now, when we look at our full line-up and we're determined to be a full-line player with Ford, Mercury and Lincoln, it's time we bring back cars with a vengeance."
A theme of Phil Martens' remarks was how the worldwide auto industry, and Ford, must change to survive. When a company is building cars in plants throughout the world, he says, economies of scale become a major consideration.
"Scale, in many respects, is more than just parts-over-million units. Scale is the capability to engineer simultaneously in Japan, in Europe and in North America," he adds. "One of the scale elements that people don't talk about is time. And when you're trying to do simultaneous engineering on a global basis, how you manage time, how you manage the scale of any operation is critical to success."
With Ford beginning to emerge from its troubles, Phil Martens says, a company rallying cry is, if you want to be the best, you've got to beat the best. A reporter then asked him, "So, who's the best?"
"Without a doubt, you'd have to say Toyota. Hands down. They have, really, the benefit of growing organically, over time," Mr. Martens said. "They've been very consistent in their management philosophy and operating patterns. And they have a very clear and long-term view on life."
His answer prompted another reporter's question, "If Toyota is the best, how do you beat them?"
The Ford vice president says it's mainly hard work by a dedicated team.
"What we are trying to put in at Ford is, basically, that we are going to crush the competition," he says. "And, we're going to do that in our own way, though. And we're going to know who they are and we're going to study them and we're going to make the best decisions along the way to do that. It's just goals, it's initiatives, it's rallying cries, but it all works. It's fun."
The Ford fun begins with a flurry of new products coming in the next few months, the Escape Hybrid sport utility vehicle, followed by the new 500 sedan, the Freestyle crossover sport wagon and a fresh version of the famous Mustang. Much depends on these vehicles' success as Ford drives into its second century.