NEW YORK – Ford executive Jim Farley heaps praise on car dealers, calling them essential to the industry, but saying they and his company must change to make it in the future.

Farley goes so far as to credit dealers with helping Ford avoid joining General Motors and Chrysler in filing for bankruptcy in 2009 during the throes of that recessionary year.

“Dealers saved us,” he says, without specifying as to how, but singling out Charlie Gilchrist, who headed the Ford national dealer council at the time and now serves as vice chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Assn. “People say, ‘How did you not go bankrupt?’ Charlie was a big part of it.”

(Conventional financial history is that Ford skirted bankruptcy by fortuitously borrowing money just before the global credit market collapsed and cash flow became a big issue for automakers.) 

Gilchrist, a Texas dealer, introduces Farley, Ford’s executive vice president and president-global markets, at the 2018 Automotive Forum put on by NADA and J.D. Power. The event is held in conjunction with the New York International Auto Show.

For the franchised dealer system to succeed in the future, “it will have to evolve,” Farley says after his homage to Ford dealers.

He cites a survey indicating 42% of polled consumers think the purchase process is too long, 42% indicate price negotiating is painful and 28% say salespeople are pushy.

He calls for building loyalty through great customer experiences, leveraging technology to streamline the shopping and buying process and using data to do one-on-one marketing.

“Customer convenience keeps people loyal to the brand and dealers,” he says, adding Ford must make things simpler for its dealers. “We put complexity in the product.”    

Dealers (and not just Ford retailers) say those complexities can range from baffling arrays of trim configurations offered by manufacturers to complicated and changing incentive programs (for both dealers and consumers) that force many dealers to hire special staffers to figure it all out.

As far as using technology to meet Internet car shopper wants and needs, he says the automaker and its dealers should “hold hands and work together to build an information technology tool set. We’ve already begun doing that.”

He adds, “Dealers have a bright future in our industry, but we have to evolve together. I believe in the creativity of dealers.”

In talking to dealers around the country, Farley says their chief concern is what Ford has in the product pipeline. “Our business is about the freshest product.”

Ford recently outlined its future-product plan that is heavy on future SUVs and CUVs to meet high consumer preferences for those segments.

“We recognize how important fresh product is,” he says. “We are now sharing our (future product) plans. We didn’t want to before, because it meant we’d be sharing our plans with competitors.”

His message to dealers on new product? “Don’t worry, it’s coming. I bet my future on it.”

Farley, the grandson of a stalwart Lincoln dealer, first landed an auto industry job with Toyota. That irked granddad. “He said, ‘I’m glad you got a job, but you’re not welcome here.’” It took six years for the elder to get over it and have his grandson over, Farley says.      

sfinlay@wardsauto.com