At this week’s launch of the 2016 Ford Focus in Adelaide, we sat down with new Ford Australia president and CEO Graeme Whickman – who took the reins from former boss Bob Graziano in April this year – to ask him how the first four months in the top job have been…
How’s the gig?
“Good, good. It’s been four or five months, so it’s whipping past pretty quick. There’s so much to do and so many cool things to be involved in. Events like today [the 2016 Ford Focus launch] are a good example. We’ve got so much activity, so much launch activity. I seem to go from pillar to post on launch after launch after launch. The week before last I was sitting in front of you guys on Ranger. Not that long ago I was supposed to be in Thailand doing Everest. It’s hard to keep containing it all really, but it’s a good thing.
“What do you think so far, in terms of how I’m going?”
I don’t know. Four months isn’t much to gauge really.
“I’m glad you said that. I don’t want to be judged on four months, that’s for sure.”
What changes have you made over that time?
“I’d be careful to characterise change in that short period of time because we’re on a path that is longer than four months, and I’m invested in that because I was part of it. I’ve been here for 19-20 months, and one of the reasons I came here was to be part of – as a footballer might say – a project.
“We talked with some of you in December of last year around 2020 [Ford Australia’s plan to launch 20 new or freshened models by 2020], we talked about consumer experience and how we’re trying to lift the bar there, we talked about the number of vehicles that are coming through. At the same time we’re asking our dealers to act in certain ways. So that’s all sort of been set, and frankly we’re down that path, so the last four months to me has been a continuation of what we had already set up.
“We’ve said that we want to do better in dealerships. We’re now getting the odd award, which is encouraging, like the Canstar. We’re seeing competitively our efforts in dealers improve, and for us that’s a big bet. We’re putting a lot of effort into that, whether it be cultural change, process change or technology change. For me it’s about making sure your house is a place that customers want to visit – in this case, the dealership – so that hasn’t changed. We’re just working harder to roll it out and we’re rolling it out to even more dealers than we were five months ago.
“Obviously in terms of change, products are changing pretty rapidly right now. We’re in the midst of a massive rollout of products. I was joking before but it’s hard to contain. The year started out with refreshes of Territory and Falcon, then we went into Kuga, then we were into Mondeo, now we’re up to Focus, then we have Everest, then we have Ranger, then we have Mustang. It’s a big year, it was always going to be a big year.
“Frankly, delivering on what we committed as a group internally at the beginning of the year is the biggest thing for me. So no big changes over the past four months as we’ve already set our course.”
How extensive has the retraining of your dealers been?
“Very. And to be fair to the dealer body they are really up for it. They understand where our opportunity is. They’re in line with us. They’re investing significant sums of money at the same time, so it’s not just coming from the company, and therefore it’s a collaborative effort.
“They’re starting to see the gains as well. You would have seen us communicate and advertise recently the back-end of our business, service promises, service loaners, service price promise, where we haven’t done that before, to try to generate a better outcome for the dealer body, more loyalty, consumers coming in and getting the experience that we’re trying to build. They understand that it’s a virtual circle and they’re up for it because they’re investing a lot in it.”
This year is going to be your 11th straight year of sales losses. When’s that going to stop?
“I don’t really want to quote our sales targets at all. My heart’s around: ‘can we do a good job with consumers?’, ‘can we launch our products?’, and then we can see what happens after that.
“I think this year is a year of two halves. I think the second half will be a little bit stronger than the first half. We’re concentrating on launching products. All I want is to earn the right to have consumers check in with us and see if they’re interested in the vehicles. My belief is the products we have should generate a better outcome, but the proof will be in the pudding and we’ll have to earn the right with customers.”
Is there pressure that comes from head office to be hitting sales marks?
“The likes of Detroit and the team in Dearborn right to the very top have aligned and believe in the strategy we have in terms of customer experience, so we’re determined that we’re going to build a base here from that perspective. Clearly you need sales and you need service results, but at the end of the day it’s going to be about customer satisfaction.
“We’re in it for the long haul and we’re going to build a positive foundation. From a business point of view there are always targets that you have in mind but the biggest target for us right now is setting the foundation, and I’ve sat with all the senior leadership team and taken them all through that and they’re right behind that.”
It must be a bit of a concern that according to the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industry’s official VFACTS sales data the Fiesta, Focus, Mondeo, EcoSport and Kuga are all either ninth, 10th or 11th in their segments at the moment?
“The VFACTS tell one story, but there are other stories to be told in terms of how we’re progressing. How many vehicles we’re selling to retail customers year-over-year in some of those vehicle lines – that’s an important story and it’s something you can’t really tell because in this market those numbers are not particularly public.
“We’re doing better in the volume of cars we sell to retail customers, we’re trying to keep some of those FCAI conditions at the forefront of our mind, and we’ll continue to try to do better with retail customers.
“You didn’t mention Ranger but it’s obviously up significantly, and some of the vehicles you’ve mentioned have either been on run out or are just about in the midst of launch: Mondeo is an example, Focus is an example.
“So there’s more richness to the story than simply VFACTS and that’s my firm belief, and that’s what I’m energising the team and the dealers with at the end of the day.”
Beyond that richer mix of retail sales, how do you measure some of those other goals that you’re working towards?
“The composition of the sales, the type of models we’re selling, the parts of the country we’re selling in, obviously that’s quite important to us, but ultimately the area we most have our eyes on at the moment is what customers are telling us about their experience. We have internal measures of that and external measures. I mentioned earlier it’s the first time we’ve ever won a Canstar award. That’s a big deal for us.
“In a similar vein as VFACTS, for example, there is some competitor information, not JD Power, but another source that has seen us in the top quartile which we’ve not been before. Our internal measures are hitting all-time records, so those are all really important for us. We’re also working on our dealers’ level of satisfaction.
“Ours is kind of an inside-out transformation, starting with customers, starting with dealers, and then we’ll see what happens post that. You’ve got to be able to launch vehicles properly as well and that’s the other metric. We’re right in the midst of all launches and if you don’t get those sorted properly then it doesn’t matter about the experience because we’ll fail in that regard.”