Straight talk from local auto dealer
November 04, 2009The questions that are bouncing around in my head these days and that I can't seem to shake are; What will the future hold for our local car dealers? What will our dealerships look like and how did we get in this mess to begin with?
In this area, the auto industry is "King." In some form, our lives and livelihood are linked to it. Strong dealerships are important, a valuable cog in our community's retail health. The "King" is ill and we are all concerned.
I walk in Imlay City Ford to see if I can get some answers to these questions. Perhaps they can help me get a better understanding.
These are tough times, as we all know. I doubt you feel like reading more doom and gloom. I am surprised at some of what I learned and would like to share it with you.
Sitting behind his desk is Paul LaFontaine Jr., 44, an athletic looking man with a big smile and a friendly manner. A picture of his family is proudly displayed on his computer screen behind him. His dealership had a facelift not long ago and still smells new. This morning the sun is shining through the huge windows in front, salesmen fill the the showroom, and the vehicles displayed are shiny and impressive.
Some experts say the U.S. economy has shown encouraging signs of recovery, although the worse may be ahead of us. Life is not easy for any of us these days, and it's certainly challenging times for our local car dealers.
Paul and I make a little small talk and I find out he is training to compete in a Tri-athalon—biking, running and swimming some incredible distances. I am impressed. He's helping his cousin, Pat (LaFontaine), a former NHL hockey star, for charity.
Paul also loves coaching baseball and enjoyed the game throughout high school in Romeo. He has three children and has been married to his wife, Cary, for 17 years.
How did we get
in this mess?
I explain to Paul what I want to talk about, these nagging questions and concerns, and he tells me he'll do his best.
So I fire away at Paul, my pen and notepad in hand. "How did we get in this mess and is there an end to it all?" I ask.
"First let me say unemployment is the big thing because it is hard to say the economy is getting better until people are getting back to work, and so that is something I look at very closely," Paul tells me, concern in his voice."It's all about jobs. Big companies are slow to react. It takes time for decisions to filter down through the system," he says, thoughtfully choosing his words.
"There was no question these huge, mammoth companies were at a competitive disadvantage with other auto companies, because of high labor costs, high legacy costs and an unwillingness to change and inability to change quick enough," Paul explains.
Ford didn't take any government money, but they did mortgage everything to keep from taking bailout monies. Paul credits Ford's CEO Alan Mullally with the position the company is in today and he is optimistic about its future.
"I think the hiring of Alan Mullally was a key," says Paul.
"He came from a different industry, Boeing, someone who looked at the industry from another point of view, from a different perspective. He made changes before and faster than GM and Chrysler did, and he was quicker to react," he goes on to explain.
"The problems really were a matter of car industry history. The companies didn't see the problems coming quick enough and as I mentioned, things move slowly in big companies. Mullally came from outside the industry, so he saw the things that were happening as the answer.
"Under Mullally, Ford did the basics, they developed a plan, mortgaged the company for the money and started re-inventing their product line. They remain a big company, but became more maneuverable and began morphing into a new more efficient auto company. Not just in the U.S., but globally. Ford developed the right products, and the right production for those products," Paul says.
"Ford answered the question of their problems before anyone else did," he said.
of the future?
I ask Paul what changes he expects to see in local dealerships in the near future.
"I think you will see fewer models and more choices for each model," Paul explains.
He feels the traditional car lots won't look like those of today. Sure there will be vehicles on the lot but not nearly as many. Instead, new car buyers will order their vehicle. There will be the basic chassis for pickups and SUVs, chassis for compact cars, chassis for mid-sized and full-sized models. You will then build your own vehicle from the chassis up.
Paul says the car salesperson will discuss with the potential buyer driving options, behavior, color, interiors, power, electric, hybrid and a host of other options.
"The customer's list of options will be enormous," says Paul enthusiastically.
"Ford has re-invented the combustion engine, we no longer will be forced to hang our hats on V-8 engines. We can now order the 6-cylinder engine with a variety of options. With Ford's new 'Echo-Boost' technology we can get 360 horsepower out of a 6-cylinder engine," he explains.
"This technology will increase fuel economy, reduce emissions, offer alternative fuels, greater efficiency and still get the power customers want."
For the most part, ordering a new vehicle will take a couple of weeks from order to delivery. A special order vehicle today can take six weeks or longer.
Life in our
There is a school of thought that we are going to remain in tough economic times for another four to five years. Of course we hope not, but experts are saying we have another round of inflation coming our way and we still have high unemployment to contend with.
"I'm afraid the old days of three shifts for our automakers are gone. We still need to put people back to work for a full recovery to happen," says Paul, trying to remain optimistic.
"We are still morphing into what we are going to become, not just Ford, but GM and Chrysler. I feel Ford, thanks to the leadership of Mullally, is further ahead right now. The best product is going to win," Paul states.
"Ford has some great products, like the 2010 Taurus, it's an outstanding vehicle. And I think we are seeing signs of a pro-American sentiment," he continued.
Paul feels a simpler life is coming and we won't be so worried about 'keeping up with the Joneses.' He feels American innovation, a desire for quality, and a renewed sense of responsibility will sweep the country. He feels the consumer is far more educated to the product lines available than ever before.
"People will get back to work, I think the worst is behind us now, and like the car companies the American people are also still morphing into what we're going to become. I feel real good about the future of Ford anf this dealership and for our area and the entire M-53 corridor," he tells me.
"Michigan folks are good hard-working people, we'll be okay. We just have to keep doing the right thing and support each other," Paul concludes.
I know this, I walked out of Imlay City Ford feeling a whole lot better about our future than when I entered.
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