As Ford Motor Co. faces perhaps the most difficult period in its 105-year history, the company is trying to boost employee confidence by showing them — and letting them drive — the vehicles it hopes will pull the storied automaker out of the financial basement.
Last week, Ford started pulling around 4,000 workers from their desks at sites near the Dearborn headquarters and onto a test track for a few hours of driving and learning about how Ford hopes to set its vehicles apart from other automakers.
“There’s obviously some worry,” product creation worker Sejal Shreffler said Monday after sitting in a Mondeo, Ford’s European midsize sedan that eventually will make its way to the U.S. when Ford begins manufacturing midsize cars globally. “It certainly seems like if we could get some of these vehicles over here we’d be headed in a better direction.”
Ford is hoping the workers who go through the sessions, scheduled to run into next week, will be able to talk up the company’s vehicles, but it also hopes to boost confidence that Ford has products coming that people will want to buy.
First the workers went into a tent where engineers and other trainers told them about how Ford wants to set itself apart with features such as sportier-driving vehicles, comfortable but firm seats, solid-feeling switches and dashboard instruments that set the brands apart. In Ford brand vehicles, for instance, all vehicles will have dark-blue lighted instruments. Vehicles, including a 2010 Mustang, a Mondeo and even a small European van, were on display.
Then it was off to the test track, where the workers split into groups to drive everything from a prototype hydrogen fuel cell-powered Focus to a Lincoln MKS luxury sedan with a new turbocharged V-6 engine that has the power of a V-8 with around 20 percent better gas mileage.
“I could get in trouble with this,” electrical engineer Bill Morris said after zipping through some bumpy curves in an MKS equipped with the turbo engine, which Ford has named EcoBoost. The engines will roll out in the MKS starting in early 2009.
Morris, a 6-year employee who works on everything from radios to wiring harnesses, said he was thrilled to drive the company’s new offerings.
Many workers, some with more than 30 years at Ford, said the company has done product displays in the past, but never anything this extensive. Some said they often are focused on their work and don’t have time to see the end product.
“It’s definitely nice to get into the vehicles and actually see them and drive,” said Shreffler.
Most of the vehicles the workers were able to drive were 2009 or 2010 models of cars and trucks currently on the market, a vehicle lineup that for the most part hasn’t sold well this year.
Ford sales are off nearly 14 percent through the first seven months of the year, with U.S. car sales off almost 5 percent and trucks down just over 18 percent. Overall, the U.S. market is down 10 percent with growth in small cars and drops in truck and sport utility vehicle sales, Ford’s traditional profit centers.
The sales slump has contributed to Ford losing $8.7 billion in the second quarter as it races to adjust from trucks to a stronger car lineup. The company has said it will bring over several small car models from Europe including the Fiesta subcompact and the European Focus compact, but those won’t arrive until 2010.
It abandoned a forecast of returning to profitability in 2009 and now can’t say when it will make money again.
Still, workers like Morris say they are confident in Ford’s future given the better products it is offering.
“It’s been a rough three or four years as an employee with the restructuring,” said Andy Sarkisian, who has 30 years with Ford and helps to plan its new safety devices. “It’s time to tell the employees there’s a reason to believe we have a future. We really are doing great things.”
Early this month, Ford wrapped up a round of salaried job cuts, saying it was successful in reducing white-collar costs by 15 percent in North America. The cuts included an unspecified number of involuntary layoffs. It also has slashed its blue-collar work force by nearly 38,000 since 2006, mainly with early retirement and buyout offers.
Sarkisian knows Ford is in a race to make money again before its cash stockpile runs out, but that’s not something that worries him.
He’s more worried about the perception that his company’s vehicles don’t match up in quality or performance to foreign nameplates.
“If the perception prevails out there, then people are going to miss an opportunity to get a good value,” he says.
For Morris, he’s seen Ford on the ropes before while he was growing up, when his father worked for the company.
“I’m not worried,” he said. “There’s always ups and downs.”