Ford’s UK operation claims to have entered 2009 in a stronger position than many rivals – because it saw the economic downturn coming and took early action.

According to Ford GB’s new sales director Jon Wellsman, the ‘blue oval’ predicted the slump in sales as far back as April last year, and took immediate steps to protect its market and its dealers against the worst effects of the credit crunch.

Wellsman told just-auto at the UK launch of the redesigned Ka it was no secret that Ford plants had been working “on a four-day week basis for several months.”

“This has reduced our capacity by some 20% and meant we are not pushing stock onto our dealers as has been the case with some brands,” he added.

Wellsman, who took up his new position on 5 January, having previously headed product marketing at Ford of Europe, said that the brand’s UK dealers have seen increased customer traffic in their showrooms, to a level that surprised them.

He attributed this to the launch of two redesigned small car lines, the Ka (built in a JV factory in Poland with Fiat on the 500 platform) and Fiesta (destined for global sales by 2010), at a time when customers were downsizing.

“We set realistic targets for the Fiesta but the model is doing better than we expected. It could not have been a better time to launch the Fiesta or the Ka.”

Wellsman added that the small car business is showing unprecedented levels of profitability here in the UK.

The sub-B sector in which the Ka competes has jumped from 4.3% of the market in 2003 to 8% now.

Older customers, traditional buyers of smaller cars, are in particular spending money they would previously have saved.

“Many are seeing the value of their savings plummeting due to falling interest rates and so they are deciding to spend their money on a new car.”
The major difficulty remains fleet sales, which have dropped 35% since April 2008. With lease customers now holding onto their cars for longer, Ford has responded by realigning its business more towards retail, in particular reducing its presence in the daily rental market.

This has resulted in Ford’s retail market share increasing by around 2% in the last year, and rising closer to 3% in the last quarter, again due mainly to sales of the Fiesta.

Wellsman said that despite the pressures on the UK car industry Ford had maintained a robust dealer network.

“Our dealers are in a very positive mood,” he added.

Andrew Charman