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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

October 02, 1998

Our six weeks of waiting has ended and it's time again for our auto world update. As usual, it's not the in the form of upcoming products or exotics that we don't get to test but we believe you'll find these industry "tidbits" easy to digest just for the fun of it. These are the items that have piqued our interest since last we met:

A FORD AT THE HELM - William C. Ford Jr. has an awesome responsibility. His father, William Sr., turned over control of the Detroit Lions pro football team to him in 1996 and this year its prospects look bad. Now the younger Ford is stepping into another management role but it doesn't involve pulling a team out of a tailspin. The "team" he has become chairman of is Ford Motor Company, the company his great-grandfather, Henry Ford, founded nearly 100 years ago. The day-by-day operation of the company will be run by Jac Nasser, a long-time Ford executive and a protege of outgoing board chairman Alex Trotman. Nasser will assume the role of Ford president and CEO. The young Ford (he's only 41) has come up through the ranks of Ford management beginning in 1979 and will be in charge of the Board of Directors as well as the company's financial committee. It will be the first time that a Ford can be found in the top echelons of the company since his uncle, Henry Ford II, stepped down in 1980 after 20 years at the helm. The Ford family is still a major stockholder in the company.

TWO MORE CRACKS IN THE GLASS CEILING - First it was Ford that boosted a woman to a top management position in the automobile industry. This happened last year and now females were picked as two of the nine executives to be boosted to top jobs in G.M. marketing management. Lynn Myers is presently the Pontiac-GMC Truck category manager and has held several management positions with various GM divisions since she joined "The General" in '76. Karen Francis has only been with company since '96 when she took over as brand manager for the Chevrolet Venture minivan and is currently in charge of the company's Rocky Mountain sales region. Along with seven other appointees (males, of course), the two ladies will be told later what divisions they will be assigned to. I wonder if there are any young female Ford family members who are in line for the top floor of company headquarters.

TOYOTA TUNES IN WITH THE KIDS - Somehow I don't feel like an old- timer just because I drive a Toyota but a "graying" of its customer base is bothering Toyota planners. It's no secret that Honda, Mitsubishi and Volkswagen have targeted the Kiddy Market in their advertising campaigns for several years and VW says that 44 percent of its U.S. sales are made to the 30-something age group. In this country the median age of Toyota buyers is now 48 and going up. To counter this, Toyota Motor Sales USA has formed a task force of eight very young corporate employees to brain-storm what it will take to get into the mind-set of the younger buyer. With Toyota selling all the vehicles it can produce for the American market, the question might be "Why bother?". The answer is that Toyota is planning for the future and is aware that today's Teeny Boppers are tomorrow's middle-class sedan buyers and brand loyalty is a strong motivator.

SATURN FOLDS FURTHER INTO G.M. - When it first hit the market, Saturn was billed as "...a different kind of car company.." and made much of the fact that although it was part of the G.M. family, it did things its own way in its own plants with its own workers. But as G.M. gets more and more into a financial bind, the need to cut costs by putting engineering talent and purchasing procedures under one roof has begun to outweigh the need for individuality. As much as two-thirds of Saturn's product engineers will be affected over the long haul as the company struggles to move upscale with bigger cars to satisfy the growing needs of Saturn aficionados. Case in fact: the full-sized German-built Opel V6 sedan that appears in this country as the Cadillac Catera may soon be "decontented" and appear on Saturn showrooms as a "big" Saturn.

FORD-MAZDA MARRIAGE SETTLES DOWN - When Ford first took control of Mazda in 1996, the Japanese auto industry in general and Mazda executives in particular were dismayed, to say the least. At that time, 33 percent ownership gave Ford the major say-so in what the ailing auto maker built and how it was done. Now Mazda managing director Kei Kado looks at Ford's involvement as the savior of his company. In two years, Ford trimmed costs, weeded out a string of money-losing sportsters such as the RX-7 rotory-powered coupe and wheeled out several new models that are enjoying remarkable success on the home market. Kado now admits that previous to the Ford takeover, his company was driven by engineering acumen and inventiveness but has now come to realize (surprise, surprise!) that the most important thing for a car company to do is to sell cars. Coming after a time when Mazda was on the brink of destruction, the company is now confident enough that it's planning major sales promotion in Europe as well as capitalizing on its newfound sales growth in this country. Apparently having an American, Ford's James Miller, in the president's chair isn't as painful as Mazda had expected.

Things are always changing in the auto world and as long as they do, we'll keep bring you those that are most interesting. We'll see you in six weeks.