He led the shutdown of Ford manufacturing in Australia – now Graeme Whickman, who started out with Ford New Zealand, is co-ordinating a Blue Oval revival in our part of the world.
ARE Kiwi and Ocker vehicle tastes still similar, is it possible to cap crossover and ute-buying fervour, what did it feel like having to close a major car plant and when is Ford Australia getting back into motorsport?
In catching up with Graeme Whickman, the former Ford New Zealand marketing man whose ascendance to presidency of Ford Australia sees him in ultimate control of Blue Oval operations on both sides of the Tasman, we posed those questions and more.
Motoring Network: Our countries share common desire for one-tonne utes but Ranger penetration was much higher in New Zealand (No.1 here, No.4 in Australia), and the swing away from orthodox cars has been less pronounced in Australia. Does that suggest our markets are moving apart?
Graeme Whickman: I think there’s still more convergence than people realise. (Yet) New Zealand … will always need to stand on its own two feet … (and) the vehicle lineups will, at times, be different. Different entities, different derivatives. That’s how I would want it to be because it tells me we are answering different customer requirements specific to those countries. If we were to be completely homogeneous that would worry me because I do think there are differences in consumer preferences and tastes.
Having said all that, there is convergence. If you think of the top three segments in both countries, there are pickups, there are C (for compact) cars and there are small sports utilities.
MN: Ranger has become a market titan, but it also dominates Ford New Zealand sales – in some months last year it accounted for up to 70 percent of registrations counts and, at year-end, it accounted for 54 percent of Ford’s total annual volume. No other brand in the market has such a dominant vehicle. Is there a risk here?
GW: I think (Ford NZ) has done an exceptional job of bringing forward how exceptional Ranger is. There are some lessons the Australian team can learn from NZ. The NZ team are very close to their customers and close to their dealers and that’s always admirable and also very effective.
MN: Assuming Ford doesn’t intend to become a one truck brand, and given that some Ford passenger models – Fiesta, Focus and Mondeo - have clearly slipped in popularity, is there a point where Ranger has to be reined back?
GW: I think, from 1000 feet high, people will always ask that question. My view is that, from the configuration of your (NZ) sales, if they are weighted toward a particular vehicle then you need to recognise and understand that.
You might be dependant a little bit … yet, also, at the end of the day if a vehicle is doing well because it is recognised as being successful and well-liked … well, you would never want to rein it in – your words – simply because it is being presented well and consumers like it.
The challenge for us might be that there could be another vehicle or two that we would like to increase volume on as well. The year-on-year passenger performance in NZ has improved and now we are going down the path having an Escape, which I think will do very well.
I think there is more opportunity, but I wouldn’t be doing it through fewer Ranger sales.
MN: New Zealand is part of your perview, but out of necessity you have clearly had to focus your attention mainly on Australia for the past 18 months. Does that continue going forward?
GW: I visit quarterly and I speak with the managing director (Simon Rutherford) every Monday morning. I’ve been on both sides on the fence. Some of the success the New Zealand team has is because they are autonomous. What they don’t need someone micro-managing them. What they need is support and help – that’s when I step in. At the end of the day I have confidence in what they are doing there.
MN: Australia is getting out of car-making – it’ll be all over by mid-October, when Holden closes up the Adelaide plant. You led the Ford manufacturing shutdown that culminated with the closure of Broadmeadows on October 7 and the end of Falcon and Territory. Tell us about that.
GW: It was one of the most challenging assignments I’ve had, both practically – meaning logistically – and also emotionally. Whilst it was emotional on the day and in the weeks leading up to it, what gave us some degree of energy and some degree of solace was the direct feedback from those affected employees and also those were staying on.
We were determined we were going to do the right thing by them. Everyone was watching us to see how we were treating our staff … the unions, the Government and even the media to some degree recognised the depth of the efforts around our employee treatment. We retrained more than 50 percent of our workforce, we redeployed over 160 people … we still have outreach centres in Broadmeadows and Geelong (engine plant) where we still reach out to those employees.
MN: Do you think it made a difference that (being born in Britain and largely raised in New Zealand) you were not an Australian national in being the person chosen to handle that situation? Would it have been harder for an Australian to have closed an Australian operation?
GW: I don’t see it that way. At the end of the day, regardless of your nationality or any predisposition – colour, race, whatever – it’s all about humanity. You’re dealing with people. I believe that if you go in with ‘people first’ principle it’s not important what nationality you bring to that, it’s how you treat people. They will see through any actions and words that are not genuine. I don’t think it helped, or hindered.
MN: Now you are navigating Ford in a new direction, wholly as a distributor of imported product – does that present new challenges? (background: In 2015, Ford Australia had its lowest sales result since 1967. It did better in 2016, but remains weak by global trend).
GW: It’s exciting. It’s not many times, professionally, that you get to be part of a turnaround – though that’s not for New Zealand so much as Australia.
New Zealand does very well; it has the highest share in the Asia-Pacific (for any Ford operation). In Australia, we’re into a period of transformation – it’s a great opportunity, one I sought out. I know how well the company operates in other parts of the world, and I know how exciting the Ford future is.
Our job is to provide a point of view about our future: That it’s fun, it’s vibrant, it’s cool. We will be the only OEM in Australia that will still be able to design and engineer a car from the ground up. We will have 2000 people employed – designers and engineers. We have a graduate programme.
The cool thing is that, as we become more global, Australia and New Zealand get to pick more and more from that portfolio. I know - but I can’t tell you – the strength of our products in the future. We’ve already said we will launch 20 new or refreshed vehicles by 2020 … our products will speak for themselves.
MN: Ford Australia is going to remain active, as you say, in design and engineering. Can you give a heads’ up on the projects that will be coming your way over, say, the next five years? And can you confirm the next Ranger will be among those?
GW: We’re very specific around what we say, and don’t say, around product development.
The local team, led the global development, of Ranger that now goes to 180 countries and Everest.
It’s been documented that they worked on programmes that have been seen in India and China.
They continue to work on global products but it’s very clear that I cannot comment on future products, because it’s commercially sensitive. We don’t want to give our trade secrets away ahead of the right time.
MN: Ford Australia and motorsport – at the moment, there is no direct factory involvement, but is that going to change? With this presumably being the last year of racing for Falcon in V8 Supercars, is there potential for Mustang to step up?
GW: There’s no change in strategy.
The teams that were involved at the time were wonderful, great people. They would move heaven and earth for us. So (the decision to pull factory support) was nothing more than a matter of strategy around conserving our dollars to put into areas where people would better see that the company itself had a future.
As always, when they line up on the grid, we wish every Ford team well, particularly Penske and Prodrive.
MN: Mustang is killing the market; it’s become a hugely relevant touchstone for performance and brand passion. Surely it’s a no-brainer to hit the track with it? And signing up Sebastien Ogier has left Ford is also looking strong in World Rally Championship again – aren’t these things worth leveraging?
GW: We’ve also just got back into Le Mans, very successfully.
Look, racing is in our DNA, right back to Henry Ford. That’s not lost on us. But we do have a job ahead of us here first, and there are higher priorities with the precious dollars we have.
MN: Speaking of Le Mans, Ford New Zealand has been working to secure examples of the road-going version of the Ford GT supercar. So far they have been rebuffed but remain confident. Are you able to help?
GW: Look I’ll always be helping NZ and Simon (Rutherford). Whatever Simon asks for, I’m always going to try to help.