Ford Death Watch 44: Captain Kirk Bets on The Last Man Standing

John Horner
by John Horner

Why would gunslinger/investor Kirk Kerkorian want to buy Ford? After two decades living high off the [gas] hog, Ford’s still suffering the Mother of all Hangovers. The night before the day after, FoMoCo headed down to the Vegas strip and got hitched, polygamy-style (Hertz, Aston-Martin, Jaguar and Volvo). While town father Bill Ford's sobered-up and hired sheriff Mulally– whose drawn-up the divorce papers and cleaned-up the town– it still looks like tornado fodder. And here comes Captain Kirk, all guns blazing, looking to take over the joint. Why now?

Thanks to his investment “experience” with Chrysler and GM, Kirk’s mob have had a good look at the automakers’ books. They know that GM and Chrysler are doomed. But they also know that the domestic auto industry is too large for all three to sink at once– if only because of brand/national loyalty and popular access to Detroit dealers. In Motown’s game of last man standing, Ford's become the odds-on favorite. That said, it takes a practiced eye to see it.

In April, Ford, Lincoln and Mercury racked-up 189,247 sales. Retail sales (down seven percent) are not falling as fast as fleet sales (down 12 percent), but both are still headed for the outhouse. Zoom in. The refreshed, Volvo-derived Taurus is a flop. Comparing ’08 Taurus to the ’07 Five Hundred, sales were down 21.3 percent last month. Zoom out. Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo added just 11,480 units. Ford sold Jaguar and Land Rover to Tata Motors; Volvo now accounts for less than 5 percent to Ford's U.S. sales volume.

Yes, the Edge, Fusion trio and revised Focus are still helping to staunch the wounds. But Ford’s share of the U.S. new car market is down 15.1 percent from last year, to 15 percent. And while there’s an upswing in car sales, none of these vehicles are generating the profit margins Ford needs to survive.

Now that the Explorer is lost (April sales were off by 38.5 percent, down 25 percent year-to-date), that task rests squarely on the F-150 pickup’s shoulders. What are the odds? Forthcoming refresh be damned; April sales of the country’s most popular vehicle fell 21 percent.

The market is beginning to wake-up to Ford’s cash conflagration. The money they’re burning is all OPM; Ford hocked everything down to the executive china and its famous Blue Oval. Liquidity is now a life or death issue. Although Fitch Ratings has downgraded Ford on that basis, the agency seems to think that Ford will turn the corner and achieve a positive cash flow by 2009. Unless, of course, more shit hits the fan.

The problem is, of course, product. There’s no doubt that Alan Mulally is kicking ass and taking names behind the scenes. Ford is becoming a smaller, leaner, faster and fitter organization. But Big Al’s done little to reenergize Ford’s branding or products. We still don’t know what a Ford is, Lincoln and Mercury are still gussied-up Fords, and Volvo overlaps everywhere. The new Flex, Fiesta, MKS and Taurus will all do well, but the competition isn’t standing still.

In short, where’s the vision thing? In truth, at the moment, as Kirk Kerkorian knows, Ford doesn’t need it. Assuming Chrysler files this summer– a probability of which Captain Kirk is not unaware– both Ford and GM will get a dead cat bounce. At that point, all Ford has to do is hang tough and not be GM, with eight brands stuffed with 40-plus lackluster products. When GM finally goes down, Ford wins. They’ll have all the time they need to [continue to] get their shit together.

Meanwhile, Kerkorian can’t lose. Ford’s stock will rise on the news of Chrysler’s fall. The head of Tracinda can sell his shares and walk with a gigantic profit. Even if he doesn’t bail at the new zenith, Kerkorian knows that Mulally’s Ford has the best chance of going the distance. Perhaps with a little strategic intervention…

As it stands, CEO Alan Mulally can ignore Kerkorian (and his minion Jerry York’s) advice. Thanks to the Ford family’s SuperShares, which give them 40 percent control, Mulally’s got “You Can’t Touch This” on his Sync. On the other hand… Ford has a long history of lynching outside CEOs. Donald Petersen turned Ford around in the dark days on the 1980s. Chief Executive Magazine named Donny "CEO of the Year" in 1989. In 1990, he was "retired" for resisting the naming certain family members to powerful board committees.

Short of shooting itself in the Mulally foot, Ford will be Detroit’s last man standing. Long term, there’s a line of gunslingers ready to take on the Blue Oval Boys. By that time, Captain Kirk will have cashed-in his chips, perhaps in more ways than one.

John Horner
John Horner

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  • Ihatetrees Ihatetrees on May 17, 2008
    menno: And, GM will end up paying the price. Unfortunately, so will thousands of workers and GM dealers (who are after all local businessmen and stand to lose a LOT of money when GM fails). I have some sympathy for GM's rank and file (although they could all use a Econ101 course from the U of Chicago). I have no sympathy for the so-called businessmen known as GM dealers. They've got state laws and legislatures in their pockets - with subsequent legal protections that most small businesses don't have. In UAW country, they have captive customers. There's a reason that NO automaker can roll out a national marketing campaign that says, "Get a New V6 MaliCamCord, Nicely Equipped, For $2x,000". It's probably violates many state franchise laws.
  • Fallout11 Fallout11 on May 22, 2008

    May 22nd followup: Ford slashes production, says it will not return to profitability until at least 2010. From the NY Times....

  • ChristianWimmer Yes, but with a carbureted 500cid V8. None of that fuel-injection silliness. 😇
  • VoGhost Fantastic work by Honda design. When I first saw the pictures, I thought "Is that a second gen Acura NSX?"
  • V16 2025 VW GLI...or 2025 Honda Civic SI? Same target audience, similar price points. Both are rays of sun in the gray world of SUV'S.
  • FreedMike Said this before and I'll say it again: I'm not that exercised about this whole "pay for a subscription" thing, as long as the deal's reasonable. And here's how you make it reasonable: offer it a monthly charge. Let's say that adaptive headlights are a $500 option on this vehicle, and the subscription is $15 a month, or $540 over a three year lease. So you try the feature for a month, and if you like it, you keep it; if you don't, then you discontinue it, like a Netflix subscription. In any case, you didn't get charged $500 up front the feature. That's not a bad deal.In my case, let's say VW offers an over the air chip reflash that gives me another 25 hp. The total price of the upgrade is $1,000 (which is what a reflash would cost you in the aftermarket). If they offered me a one time monthly subscription for $50 to try it out, I'd take it. In other words, maybe the news isn't all bad.
  • 2ACL A good car, but - at least in this configuration -not one that should command a premium. Its qualities just aren't as enduring as those of Honda's contemporary sports cars. For better or worse, this is a formula they remain able to replicate.