IF GRAEME Whickman saw any dark irony in starting his new job as president and chief executive of Ford Australia on April 1, he’s kept it well hidden.
No wonder. Considering the state of Ford’s local arm after almost a decade of slumping sales and rivers of red ink, he’d more easily be seen as the victim of an April Fool’s joke than the perpetrator.
Now that his predecessor, Bob Graziano, has shifted his retirement forward, 47-year-old Whickman has inherited the task of ushering the Blue Oval through the traumatic “transformation” from manufacturer to importer.
Originally Graziano, who oversaw the decision to close Ford’s two Australian manufacturing plants in October 2016 and kill off the Falcon, committed to seeing that process through to the end.
His premature departure rekindled speculation the Broadmeadows assembly line and Geelong engine plant would shutter early. Dismal sales for the new FGX Falcon have done nothing to discourage that line of thought.
Yet Whickman, who served as Graziano’s marketing, sales and service VP, rejects such thinking.
“Categorically not. [The two are] completely unrelated,” he insists.
“Our plan for the cessation of manufacturing remains as we committed. Nothing is sitting in the background that would prompt Bob to make a decision and move on.
“Our plan is the plan. We have a build and a sales rate that support our commitment. Our commitment remains the same.”
Whickman is an unabashed Graziano fan, praising his work and legacy. Plenty of Ford and V8 Supercars fans may disagree, but Whickman says Graziano did a hard job as well as possible.
“He fixed the fundamentals, made some tough decisions and dealt with reality in a way that was very dignified and very respectful of people. It was recognising our organisation needed to transform, build our brand back and make some really cool decisions around being a pioneer in customer experience.
Graziano often recruited people he had worked with previously. He and Whickman had been together in China, and when Graziano’s call came from Melbourne, he says there was no hesitation.
“I want to be part of this turnaround,” Whickman says.
“I believe in the brand, I believe in the product and I believe we have a really cool road to drive down.”
He’s not kidding about needing a turnaround. In 2014, Ford Oz sold 79,703 vehicles, its lowest total since 1966. Falcon sedan and ute sales, at 9134, were the lowest since the model was introduced in 1960.
This year is not off to a great start. Ford registrations for the first two months are down 20.7 percent.
“The nature of the sales we have and the type of sales and who we sell them to are just as important to us as the total is to some others,” Whickman counters. “So the quality and the richness of our business is the first port of call in terms of success.”
In other words, Ford is chopping mass fleet deals that create volume over profit. Private buyers are now the Holy Grail. Still, a climb in volume is expected as all-new Mondeo, Everest and Mustang roll out, with updates for Ranger and Focus, and 20 new models by 2020.
“There will be an expectation that we would have a different number than we have been selling in recent years, but I am not going to make any crazy predictions,” Whickman says. “I am going to sit quietly and hopefully achieve, with a bit of humility and respect, and then when we get there I’ll be happy about it.”
THROUGHOUT his five-year term as Ford Australia’s top salesman, Bob Graziano (pictured right, speaking to the author) hated going off-script and refused to drop his guard with media; the tape recorder was a flame thrower, its operator the enemy.
Journalists were always trying to drag him into the weeds, he said, and his job was to stay out of them.
The trouble was – and remains – the closure of Ford’s two Australian plants and the end of Falcon could never be encompassed in a press release, TV appearances and constant use of the word “transformation”. Those who got to know Graziano talk of his warmth, humour, compassion and integrity, and being the right man for a very hard job. We never got to see that.
Farewell, Bob, it would have been nice to know you.