Ford CEO seeks to rally dealers as shares sink to new low


LAS VEGAS, Oct 19 (Reuters) - With Ford Motor Co's stock at nearly a nine-year low and the company squeezed by tariffs and trade tensions, Chief Executive Jim Hackett sought to restore confidence among dealers gathered in Las Vegas this week, days ahead of announcing the automaker's third-quarter results.

In closed-door meetings with members of Ford's national dealer network, Hackett and other top Ford executives showed off future versions of the popular Explorer and Escape SUVs, as well as new the Ranger mid-sized pickup truck and an unnamed smaller off-road utility vehicle, attendees said. Ford has said it will refresh 75 percent of its North American lineup over the next two years.

"I feel better after seeing the product," said Jim Seavitt, owner of Village Ford in Dearborn, Michigan, near the company's headquarters. He saw Hackett speak on Wednesday night.

Hackett's presentations were not open to the press or public. Ford in July postponed a planned investor presentation that was scheduled for September.

After Morgan Stanley on Friday cut its price targets for Ford and General Motors Co due to slumping industry demand in China, Ford's stock dipped to $8.19 - its lowest price since November 2009 - before recovering to $8.47. Ford is expected to report a decline in third-quarter profits on Oct. 24.

Dealers said the most important aspect of the meetings in Las Vegas was that Hackett laid out his vision for the company and explained to dealers how they fit in those plans - reassurances they said were long overdue.

Hackett and other executives promised dealers there will be a wave of new models to replace an aging lineup, that future models would come at a faster pace and that more of those new models would be electric or hybrid.

Company executives also outlined plans to cut time from a customer ordering a vehicle to delivery from 82 days to 38, as well as plans for the launch of an enhanced customer appreciation program to reward Ford's most loyal buyers.

"His (Hackett's) first slide was a McKinsey-type slide and I was like, 'Oh great, this is going to be like a consulting session here,' but I found him to be very genuine," Pete DeLongchamps, senior vice president with Group 1 Automotive , told Reuters.

DeLongchamps, whose Houston-based company owns 17 Ford stores, saw Hackett speak on Tuesday night.

Seavitt said what Hackett lacked in the "wow factor," he made up for in sincerity and credibility.

While some dealers expressed concern about Ford's previously announced decision to drop sedans in the U.S. market due to declining demand, they accepted the logic.

One large dealer, who asked not to be identified, said Ford's October sales were down double digits at his stores and criticized Ford's product line and lack of aggression with incentives and advertising.

Jim Farley, Ford's president of global markets, told reporters the dealers simply wanted to see proof of Ford's change in direction and plans. Farley said Hackett had been the "catalyst" for that change.

"Most dealers have their entire net worth sunk into a dealership so it was important for us to know what's going on," Santosh Viswanathan, managing partner with Willis Ford in Smyrna, Delaware, told Reuters. He attended Hackett's presentation on Monday.

Ford announced an $11 billion restructuring in July and three months before that said it would drop production of traditional sedans in the U.S. market and accelerate cost cutting. Many investors and analysts have called for greater detail about the restructuring and complained the company lacked a clear strategy.

Dealers attending the Las Vegas meetings said they applauded Ford's next batch of ads, which will launch this weekend. The ads tout Ford's long manufacturing history and the involvement of the Ford family, and use the tagline "Built Ford Proud," echoing the long used Ford truck slogan, "Built Ford Tough." (Reporting by Ben Klayman in Las Vegas; editing by Tom Brown and Dan Grebler)