No. 1005
July 17, 2019

About The UjianNasional

Peter M. DeLorenzo has been immersed in all things automotive since childhood. Privileged to be an up-close-and-personal witness to the glory days of the U.S. auto industry, DeLorenzo combines that historical legacy with his own 22-year career in automotive marketing and advertising to bring unmatched industry perspectives to the Internet with, which was founded on June 1, 1999. DeLorenzo is known for his incendiary commentaries and laser-accurate analysis of the automobile business, as well as racing and the business of motorsports. Author. Commentator. Influencer. The Consigliere. Minister of the High-Octane Truth. DeLorenzo is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today.

DeLorenzo's latest book is Witch Hunt (Octane Press  ). It is available on Amazon in both hardcover and Kindle formats, as well as on iBookstore. DeLorenzo is also the author of The United States of Toyota.

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By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way..."

No, Charles Dickens didn’t write about the automobile industry, but he might as well have, as the Sturm und Drang and the semi-controlled chaos that are now part and parcel of everyday life in this industry have become magnified with each passing month.

And nowhere is this more on display than at the Ford Motor Company. That Ford has fallen into a kind of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde swirling maelstrom of contradictory forces is no big secret. On the one hand, Ford is limned as a train station rehabbing, AI deal-making, Mustang Bullitt-purveying, F150-churning benevolent American icon. This is the Shiny Happy Ford, the car company brimming with indefatigable spirit and with roots that go back to the very beginnings of the auto business in this country.

That this version of the Ford image is carefully crafted and honed to a polished degree is no accident; this is the preferred image for the Ford Motor Company that chairman Bill Ford Jr. not only wants to portray but one that he believes in with all of his heart. And Ford lives up that ideal in terms of the countless examples of financial support the company gives to the greater Detroit community. That is to be commended and is truly appreciated by the denizens of the Motor City.

But as I indicated, there are two sides to this story. Though Ford operates as Benevolence Inc. and wears its heart on its sleeve while doing so, the company can’t control everything in terms of image and the burgeoning reality of how outsiders view the company.

Let’s take Wall Street for instance. It views Ford differently. It sees a company with the F150 and little else, a company struggling to get new product out while throwing everything against the AI and Autonomous wall to see what sticks. And it sees Jim Hackett, the Ford CEO, as someone who’s expert at platitudes but with little or nothing to offer beyond that.

Now I will be the first to admit that I am no fan of Wall Street and I’ve said so repeatedly in this column. We’re talking about a cynical institution that built up Elon Musk and Tesla while ignoring every single principal it stands for. They ran up Tesla stock with no signs of profitability on the horizon, and they duped the average investor into believing that Emperor Musk’s glittering ideas were more than enough to go on, while jamming the “it won’t be long now!” canard down everyone’s throats. It worked for a while, but now even Wall Street is shunning Musk – and quite deservingly so, I might add – and he’s become the new Poster Boy for a remake of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Be that as it may, the Wall Street-types do have a point about Ford. Several of which I actually agree with. 

To begin with, Ford’s forays into AI and autonomy are a little bit more than pipe dreams at this point, and the idea that Ford will be part of the New Mobility economy is a work in progress, at best. This is a noble notion that Ford has – believing it should be part of the future of transportation just as it was more than a century ago – but nothing about this idea is preordained, and there are so many talented and gifted players working on the same idea that it will remain a giant “we’ll see” for years to come.

Next, Ford’s product cadence is out of whack, and it shows. When Hau Thai Tang – Ford’s Product Chief – informed the media of the company’s future plans on Friday, it all sounded good, at least on paper. Thai Tang said Ford would be adding nine nameplates through 2023, seven of which will be utilities and pickups. This is all with the goal of having one of the newest product lineups in the industry by 2020. Now, Thai Tang is extremely talented and capable and one of the best and brightest at Ford, but a company that is notorious for tardy, problem-laden launches does not give one confidence that these new products will be any different. Just one example: The new Bronco, which by all accounts and early assessments looks to be a sure-fire hit, is late. At least two years too late. We won’t see it until the end of 2020 and that is simply inexcusable. Two years is a lifetime in this business, and Ford’s product cadence quite simply is consistently underwhelming, at best.

But the biggest issue Wall Street has is with Jim Hackett, and it’s no wonder why. The professorial, touchy-feely Hackett talks around and around suggesting the best ways for things to happen, and the way everyone should feel while things are happening, but in true “I’ve-been-lost-on-campus-so-long-I-have-grown-completely-irrelevant-and-out-of-touch” fashion, he is nothing more than an expert air salesman at this juncture. And as we well know – or at least you should know by now – selling air counts for exactly zero in this business. “Selling Air” is the modern-day sequel to the Emperor’s New Clothes, and it’s much ado about nothing because, well, it’s much ado about nothing. So, as much as I loathe the calculated fleecing that’s part of Wall Street’s relentless M.O., the professional scammers there understand when they’re being broadcast to by an air seller, and they don’t much cotton to it. I don’t either. 

Now this has nothing to do about whether Hackett is a decent guy or not, because by all accounts he is, but it has everything to do with the projected image of the Ford Motor Company beyond this region. Here, we accept the fact that Ford does good things for the community but “out there” in the real – and ever hard-core – investor world, it’s all about “what have you done for us lately?” And Jim Hackett talking about how things are going to be and how we should all feel while these things are happening understandably leaves everyone cold.

It doesn’t help the fact that Hackett continues to talk up Ford’s “deep bench” either, because that is just flat out false. As I delineated in “Ford In Free Fall” last May, the idea that Ford has a “deep” bench is laughable. Sure, there are self-proclaimed princes operating their own little fiefdoms within Ford, like the ever-notorious Jim Farley, who remains unfettered by rational thought and untethered by accountability, but the fact of the matter is that the aforementioned Thai Tang is really the sole bench occupant who is actually worth the wait and a future star. And for a company with the depth and breadth of problems that Ford has, that isn’t nearly enough to go on.

So, Ford has a major league image problem, and much of it lies with the fact that Jim Hackett doesn’t exactly engender confidence on any level. And the Ford Motor Company simply can’t afford that kind of underwhelming image-wrangling, because blue-sky platitudes and touchy-feely experiential notions don’t add up to a winning hand.

So “the two Fords” is a thing, and it’s not a good thing by any means. Hackett is a decent and nice guy who should be leading a think tank somewhere for Ford, and if any ideas bubble up to the surface from it then congratulations will be in order.

But he is not a CEO. In fact, he is the wrong man, at the wrong time, at the wrong company.

And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.