For Ford Australia president Graeme Whickman, overseeing the manufacturing shutdown has been difficult, but his challenges are really just beginning.
Graeme Whickman didn’t want to sell cars when he was a working class kid growing up in England and New Zealand. Oh sure, he liked them, especially Ford hot hatches. But his dream was to be a professional footballer.
It was only after leaving school at 16 and persevering for a decade that he realised he wasn’t going to make it. Marriage was the clincher that sent him back to school for a marketing degree.
“I had figured out you have to be in an industry you enjoy, so there was aviation, sports, entertainment, or automotive,” he recalls.
He didn’t get the chance to try out the other three because an offer to join Ford UnZud came before he had graduated: “Eighteen years on, I’m still in the industry,” he muses.
In fact, Whickman is up to his neck in it. As the president of Ford Australia – think about what a meteoric rise that is from a zone manager in Auckland – he gets to be the canary in the coal mine, shutting down the Blue Oval’s local manufacturing operations 12 months ahead of Holden and Toyota, retrenching hundreds of workers and killing off Falcon and Territory.
It’s a hell of a responsibility, but then so is the phase that comes after it; running a successful business that has none of the advantages or disadvantages of being a local manufacturer; simply being another one of the 60-odd brands that fight for share in one of the world’s most competitive new-vehicle markets.
It’s a battle Whickman makes clear he is up for.
“To me it is a classic case of change management; when you have got people who are holding on to the past and people who are reaching out for the future,” he says.
“Our job is to navigate that. Our efforts are genuinely providing some belief to people, and we are seeing some results. We call them green shoots.”
Whickman speaks forcefully and positively yet without tub-thumping zeal. He is the sixth boss of Ford Australia since the late, great Geoff Polites moved on in 2004 and will be the first since 1925 not to have locally built cars to sell.
Whickman wasn’t running Ford Australia when the decision to close the plants was made in 2013; that was his opaque predecessor Bob Graziano’s thankless task. But the ‘transformation plan’ that is now in place has his fingerprints all over it. Better customer experience, better dealer relations, a swing away from fleet to retail sales, chopping loss-leader models out of line-ups, the rejection of volume for volume’s sake.
These are all Whickman mantras. Another favourite is the word “rebuild”. He talks about rebuilding customer relationships and trust. Clearly that means something was broken.
“We had been a brand that had been in decline; our reliance on certain products had been obvious to everybody as it is with Holden now,” he says bluntly.
“To me it was about going back to fundamentals,” he adds. “Make sure the vehicles are fit for purpose; make sure you market the vehicles properly; make sure you have a compelling service proposition to customers; make sure you have a compelling consumer experience whether you come in at the font-end or the back-end of the dealership; make sure everyone is galvanised so they can see what success might look like in the future and how we get there.”
Whickman quotes various confidential surveys to prove progress is being made: more private buyers, more service customer retention, a much higher satisfaction rate among the all-important dealer body.
The one clear symbol of progress we see publicly are VFACTS registration numbers and they tell a good story. After finishing 2015 with its lowest sales result since 1967, Ford has U-turned in 2016, running 16.6 percent ahead year-on-year based on VFACTS registration numbers to the end of July. It’s the second biggest surge forward amongst the top 10 players, topped only by Kia with an incredible 28.1 percent rise.
“This year my prediction is that for the first time in 12 years we will actually have year-on-year growth,” Whickman says.
But break those numbers down and you see a huge reliance on the Ranger pick-up, which accounts for more than 40 percent of total sales. At the other end of the scale, sales of passenger vehicles, apart from the niche Mustang, are putrid. In six months it has managed to sell roughly the same amount of Fiesta and Focus as the segment leaders manage in a single good month.
Such figures lend credence to the argument that Ford has simply transferred its Falcon audience to Ford Ranger and continues to flop as a marketer of passenger cars – a charge a series of Ford’s leaders have ’fessed up to.
You can now add Whickman to that list: “It doesn’t seem that we have done a good enough job in educating and enlightening everybody on just how good our products are,” he admits.
“My view is that I have a pretty comprehensive line-up. Call it 11 to 12 nameplates that span all the key segments and, blow for blow, will fight any competitor in terms of product capability. My job is, how do I unlock that? And that’s part of what I’m trying to do right now.”
From soccer field to corner office, one thing has not changed for Whickman: he remains under pressure to score goals.
Turning up the Whickman
Born in the UK in 1968, Graeme Whickman spent his early years living there and later, in New Zealand. He was the archetypal working class kid, leaving school at 16 and holding down jobs as a labourer, barrow boy, roofer, sheetmetal worker and Hertz delivery driver … among many other things.
Whickman had dreams of a pro soccer career; instead, he was paid “small amounts of money” to play for several clubs in New Zealand.
“I was a centre forward who was slow enough to migrate to centre back,” he recalls.
Since joining Ford in 1997, Whickman’s rise has been meteoric, working in six countries and holding down 11 roles in 19 years.