Ford realizes customer is Job 1

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When Ford Motor Co. four years ago announced a sweeping restructuring, one word was missing from the press release: customer. In the release Ford put out last week trumpeting a second makeover attempt, "customer" appeared 24 times. Ford, age 102, finally is remembering what-who-drives the business.

CEO Bill Ford says he has a better idea: "From now on, our products will be designed and built to satisfy the customer, not just fill a plant." Shocking concept, huh?

From a business standpoint, there was twisted logic to the old way: Ford and its partners in the cozy Detroit oligopoly-General Motors, Chrysler, the union-struck deals in which workers could get money whether or not the line was running, so Ford just kept churning out the metal. That kept workers content, and consumers had little choice but to buy the line from Detroit.

Henry Ford's "any color as long as it's black" dictate for Model T actually carried a customer benefit. Consumers could choose Model T colors until 1914. That's when Ford moved manufacturing to an assembly line, doubled wages (giving workers-consumers-the means to buy a car) and began painting all cars black (it dried faster, critical for production on the fast-moving conveyer belt). Ford gave consumers no choice but a great deal.

Consumers now have lots of choices. Detroit's share last year slumped to 57%. Ford is closing factories and slashing jobs. But Bill Ford, great-grandson of Henry, noted: "You can't cut your way to success." So Ford vows to get closer to the customer, produce innovative and distinctive vehicles with clearly defined brands and simplify pricing.

There's reason to be skeptical. Images for Lincoln ("the reward for people living the American dream") and Mercury (modern design for the iPod set) sound like wishful thinking. And Ford's pitch as "America's Car Company" seems at odds with the global reality of both Ford and the market. But at least Ford knows who's in the driver's seat: the customer. That's crucial if Ford is to find a fix that sticks to the bottom line: any color as long as it's black.

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