Interview – Lisa Brankin, managing director, Ford of Britain and Ireland

“Almost all our new car customers will still be able to get to a Ford dealership within less than half an hour, and we will look to maintain aftersales; this is not about reducing the customer experience, it is about enhancing it.”

Lisa Brankin became managing director of Ford of Britain and Ireland last October, taking the helm of the best-selling car maker as the effects of the second coronavirus wave were starting to be felt. Since then, she and her team have navigated lockdown, emerging to the challenges of stock limitations in the wake of the semiconductor shortage.

Here Brankin, who joined Ford as a graduate trainee in 1990 and has worked as the firm’s sales, marketing, dealer operations director, as well as holding managerial roles in its dealer and consumer marketing and communications, events and sponsorship departments, outlines how she intends to keep Ford at the top of the sales charts and her excitement at the opportunities presented by the changing automotive landscape.

Few people know Ford of Britain better than you. Does your previous experience make moving into this role easier?

“I’ve worked across a lot of departments at Ford, from being more in the field to working out of head office, so from that perspective I feel well prepared for the role, even if I never expected it. In truth, from the day I walked in with my briefcase and phone to sell commercial vehicles I didn’t think about my next role, just doing the one I was in as well as I could.

“There was no trepidation when I was asked to take it on, just excitement. I know the brand and I know what I have to do, and there’s no doubt in my mind about how exciting the opportunities are.”

What’s it like running a huge company in a crisis?

“It’s a lot of work and a lot of stress, not just for me, but the whole team and our partners. But I don’t think we’re any different to anyone else in that we are focused on trying to do what’s right, for our colleagues’ safety first and foremost, and then the business.

“There’s enough challenges out there to keep anyone busy, and we’ve all worked some long days, but we are all focused on what we can achieve. Everyone thought they knew the pace of change we were facing into, but it just keeps accelerating.”

Short-term you are facing challenges around stock?

“Like almost everyone, we’ve been hit by the global semiconductor shortage. Where we’d typically have plenty of cars in stock, we are now having to ask customers to wait a short time for their orders to be delivered.

“It’s not ideal and it presents challenges, but on the whole customers are being patient and we are dealing with it well. While nobody has a crystal ball, the waiting times are realistic and we hope the problems will ease before the end of the year.”

The Ford Fiesta has been the UK’s best-selling car for 12 years. Is that run about to come to an end as a result of these supply issues?

“There’s an old saying within Ford that market share doesn’t contribute anything to the profit line, and we’re very focused on making the best return we can. We have to work with what we have, and until we get a clear picture on supply we’ll focus on doing the best we can with what we have.”

Does it matter if the Fiesta isn’t the UK’s best-seller?

“Every day starts and ends with me looking at the sales figures, so, yes, they’re important! Having a best-seller is a nice accolade from the perspective of it vindicating the quality of the car – if so many people are choosing it, then it must be good.

“But these are different times, and if the Ford Transit Custom [currently on 22,963 registrations to the Vauxhall Corsa’s 20,024] is the best-selling vehicle in Britain this year, so be it.”

The van market has been booming, including an all-time record for registrations in May. How important are van sales to Ford?

“The commercial vehicle market is incredibly important to Ford, to the extent that we reorganised the company to ensure we had enough focus on it.

“We’ve obviously had a lot of success with the Transit range, but we believe we can do more again, and we believe that the electric Transit being launched in 2022 opens up more opportunities, particularly in cities. It’s an incredibly exciting – and important – part of our business.”

The other growth area for the industry is SUVs. Do you feel Ford has the right model line-up now to capitalise?

“We’ve had strong SUV sales for some time now, and we believe the growth has some way to go yet, but it’s true to say that our current line-up is our best ever. One growth area is the Motability market, where we still see a significant opportunity.

The Puma is particularly noteworthy, both for its sales success and its critical acclaim; it’s a brilliant car with wide appeal, including as an entry-point to the brand. And while it’s hard to quantify, I believe that the number of awards it has won goes a long way in verifying it as the right choice in customers’ minds.”

The Mustang Mach-E taps into that SUV surge, too?

“It does, but it’s also a car that stands for so much more than its sales figures as it spearheads our future in so many regards. It sets a direction, and that’s exciting for everyone. I know you expect me to say it, but you drive that car and you come away excited about the possibilities for motoring in the future. It’s special, and one of our challenges is to get as many people as possible in it just to understand how special.

“Personally, I believe it was given the Mustang name for all the right reasons; in its own way it represents a spirit of freedom and change. Yes, I have had letters from die hard fans saying it was a terrible mistake, but I reply saying what I’ve told you. Some consider my response and accept it, some can’t be moved. We agree to disagree.”

Do cars like the Mach-E spell the end for diesel?

“We’re here to offer customers the best choice for their needs within the regulatory frameworks. In some instances diesel is still the right choice, and of course that is even more important in the commercial vehicle market.

“We will move with the market needs, developing alternatives so our customers can choose what’s best for them. That sales mix is not high up on my list of worries; obviously we have to forward plan our sales expectations, but we are fortunate to have a model range that can meet customer choices.”

Talking of challenges, are you still committed to cutting the number of Ford dealerships from around 400 to 250, and why?

“That process is in motion and will be completed by 2025, yes. But it’s not a negative, it’s about offering our partners more sustainable businesses for the long-term, where they have a catchment of customers that will justify the investment we need them to make. Almost all our new car customers will still be able to get to a Ford dealership within less than half an hour, and we will look to maintain aftersales; this is not about reducing the customer experience, it is about enhancing it.”

And are you committed to online sales?

“Yes, and we have been for some time, but within a framework that works for our customers and retail partners. I do not anticipate our customers moving entirely online, but I do think we should be at the forefront of serving our customers in any way they want.”

Rivals, including Volkswagen and Stellantis, are moving towards an agency model, whereby they handle sales and give dealers a handling fee. Will you?

“There’s nothing to say on that from our perspective. The industry is evolving and we are watching what’s happening, but at the moment our position is to work to the model that is in place today.”

You’ve long held top positions in Autocar’s Great Women in the British Car Industry list. How does that feel, and do you feel you are more of a role model now?

“In the politest possible way, my mindset is that I’m managing director of Ford of Great Britain and Ireland. It doesn’t make any difference that I’m a woman, and I don’t carry any thoughts with me that I’m doing the role as a woman. I just use my skills in the best ways I can for the good of the company.

“But the point that I can embrace – and which Autocar’s initiative does so well – is celebrating the women who are doing a brilliant job in our industry, and highlighting their success to a wider audience. This is an amazing industry that offers so many varied opportunities. Shining a spotlight on that and encouraging a more diverse pool of applicants is wonderful and I will always encourage everyone to embrace the possibilities.”

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