Taking Ford Ireland out of the pitlane

John Manning has the unenviable task of trying to take Ford back to the top in Ireland

Fifth place, behind Toyota, Hyundai, Volkswagen and Skoda, is not a sales charts placing in which Ford ever expected to find itself, in Ireland. Uniquely dubbed Henry Ford & Sons Ltd, the Irish arm of Ford's empire has always seemed like a company apart - based in Cork, when others have homes in Dublin, and able to call upon the local heritage of the Ford family. For decades, Ford was consistently the best-selling brand in Ireland.

No longer. Sales and volume have slipped, as has been the case for Ford generally around the world. Late in arriving to both the compact SUV and electric car parties, Ford has seen its sales shrink as customers have abandoned traditional big-sellers such as the Focus and Mondeo, and shifted to SUV-shaped pastures new. Squeezed between the encroaching forces of the premium German brands on one side, and Toyota on the other, Ford has been battered.

Around the world, this has lead to a major retrenchment, and many job losses as headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, tried to steer Ford onto a new course, one replete with crossovers, SUVS, and starting later this year with the Mustang Mach-E, electric cars.

As part of that process, Ford in Ireland has had to shrink, more than halving staff numbers at its Boreenmanna Road home in Cork, and cleaving more closely to Ford in the UK for support and back-office help.

The man now charged with fronting for Ford in Ireland, John Manning (officially titled Market Lead, Sales & Marketing Director) reckons that there's lemonade in amongst the cost-cutting lemons, though. "Ford in Ireland is now what it needs to be, what it always needed to be," Manning tells The Irish Times. "And that is 100 per cent a sales organisation. We are now incredibly focused, and thinking of only two things - sales and profitability."

Manning acknowledges the pain of the restructuring, but says that it has brought about a new, leaner operation. “We lost the best part of 20 to 30 fantastic people, people who lived and breathed Ford, and that was hard. Equally though, behind the scenes, we’ve gained a couple of hundred equally enthusiastic people, through working more closely with the UK.”

By Manning's reckoning, buddying-up to the UK, even on the eve of Brexit, is a huge advantage for Ford's Irish operations. Previously, because of the small size of the Irish car market, we were bundled together in the management structure with other small markets, and decisions and ideas could take weeks to percolate through to senior management in Ford of Europe. Now, thanks to the closeness with the UK market, decisions and plans can be turned around and actioned in hours.

"By working closely with Ford in the UK, we're also getting the benefit of experience of those people there who are used to working in a super-competitive market" says Manning. "I think we might just take people by surprise. The key, of course, is the dealer network and that's what we're really focusing on. Ford's Irish dealers have always performed for the marque, and so we now have to give them the tools - the models and the marketing support - to enable them to do that for us now. There will especially be a huge change in the way we deal with customers, and customer service in general - there's a huge opportunity there." Part of that will include a seven-year warranty on all Ford models, equalling that offered by Korean rival, Kia.

Ford as a brand must change too, though, and Manning knows it will be hard pulling the Blue Oval away from its man-in-the-street roots and into the new world of digital dominance. The move towards electric and hybrid models begins this year, with the new Puma mild-hybrid arriving this month; the hybrid and plugin-hybrid Kuga in March, and towards the end of the year (with order books open in June) the all-electric Mustang Mach-E.

Amidst all of that, Manning can’t resist a gentle swipe at those rivals who he sees as muddying the waters over what counts as a hybrid and what counts as an electric car. “The growth in electrification is all about the consumer mindset” Manning told The Irish Times. “Education is needed, not just for the consumer, but across the whole industry. We will always be very transparent and candid as to what ‘hybrid’ means to the consumer. There’s a responsibility for all automotive companies to educate the public on this subject in an open and honest manner.”

While we'd be surprised if the new Puma and Kuga don't sell well, Ford's future possibly hinges more on that upcoming electric Mustang Mach-E. With such a potential turning point for the company just months away, Manning doesn't mince words - "Mach-E will be a really, really competitive proposition, and not just at the top end of the market. It will be a car for all." All Ford will say for now is that it will cost in the region of €50,000 inclusive of grants, but the suspicion is that Ford will attempt to undercut the benchmark Tesla Model 3 on price.

Right now, with the pain of redundancies still throbbing, Ford seems to be in a slightly better position in Ireland. Ahead of the final figures for January, it is apparently ahead of its sales figures for the same month last year, and that's with the big-selling Kuga on a run-out, and with the new Puma only just arriving. Can Ford climb back up the slippery pole to Irish market dominance, and do it with a far smaller staff than before? Fourth place is no longer good enough.