O'Connor on 40 years at Ford, and the future

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Jim O'Connor, group VP-marketing, sales and service in North America at Ford Motor Co., retired Dec. 31 after 40 years with the automaker. Mr. O'Connor, who joined Ford in 1964 , rose from his first job as a regional field rep calling on dealers in Jacksonville, Fla., and has moved 16 times for Ford during his career. His resume includes stints as executive director-marketing in the U.S., CEO-Canada, president of Lincoln Mercury and president of Ford Division. Mr. O'Connor sat down with Detroit Bureau Chief Jean Halliday to discuss Ford, his career and the changes he's seen in the industry.

AA: What's the biggest challenge at Ford today?

Mr. O'Connor: While we've always been known to deliver great trucks and we dominate almost every truck segment, 2004 was the year of the car at Ford. We have to continue to produce hot cars like the Mustang and the new Five Hundred [sedan].

AA: What's your reaction to longtime dealers and experts who called 2004 the craziest in the business in decades?

Mr. O'Connor: I can remember in the late `60s we had a 69-day strike and when I went out to California in 1980 interest rates were 21%. Those were pretty interesting years.

AA: How will the retirement Feb 1. of Ford Motor President Nick Scheele, who championed WPP Group as a preferred supplier, affect the relationship?

Mr. O'Connor: I was in the meeting and what Nick said was, `You folks are one of the real big conglomerates. WPP has like 60 different companies.' He said, `I want you to give me your absolute best work because we are your biggest client. TiVo is coming in and there's digital communications. If we go into digital in a greater way at the expense of the same dollar of TV media, which we are shifting, why wouldn't we want to do it with you? We've been with you so long, so walk with us there.' It wasn't saying we are not going to consider anybody else if they are better than you. You've got to think of moving in the direction of the fragmentation of the business. We don't want to go outside so get with us and get going. Get more flexible than just doing TV advertising.

AA: So you don't expect any changes?

Mr. O'Connor: On a global basis whether it's the [Ford] Focus here or the Focus in Europe, we are giving J. Walter [Thompson] a lot of confidential information because they are our business partner. We don't want 50 agencies having our future product plans. We've never jumped ship on J. Walter. We've been with them for 60 years, Y&R, 27 years, I think, and more than 10 with Ogilvy. There's not going to be a change whether Nick is here or not.

AA: How is the Ford turnaround going?

Mr. O'Connor: It's a product-led turnaround and I think the real proof will be in 2005 because we really didn't launch [all-new models] in any quantity until late in the third or early in the fourth quarter.

AA: Over the years and more recently, experts have called for the elimination of Mercury and Lincoln is struggling. What's happening with those two brands?

Mr. O'Connor: Lincoln and Mercury are here to stay and we're doing it with product. Other people have done it with product that turns things around. We are giving them 11 new products over the next four years so we've made a commitment that we are going to develop those brands.

AA: What are the secrets to your success at Ford?

Mr. O'Connor: When you are loyal, you don't do things on a short-term basis. You have the courage to give your point of view even if it's not politically the popular opinion. ... And I've always been able to put together a team that delivers results.

AA: What are your retirement plans?

Mr. O'Connor: I'll stay on a few boards and I'm going to join a few more. I'll spend more time with my family. ... My [golf] handicap will go up because I'll have to take putts I didn't have to take with the dealers. Most of my social engagements, other than my immediate family, are with the retailers, being at their parties, their weddings, baptisms, funerals and grand openings. I wouldn't say on Jan. 1st I'll never talk to a Ford dealer again. You can't open a door in a Ford oval office for 40 years and not think your life is going to change when it's over.

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