Interview – Roelant de Waard, General Manager, passenger vehicles, Ford of Europe

New Puma reveals a ‘more agile’ mindset at Ford

Roelant de Waard has spent more than a decade in senior sales positions with Ford; most recently, he added the role of general manager for passenger vehicles across Europe to his other job as vice-president of marketing, sales and service for the region.

In January, he collected the overall Car of the Year trophy at the 2020 What Car? Awards at Grosvenor House in London, on behalf of the team behind the development and launch of the all-new Ford Puma.

Here, he talks about why he believes the Puma stands out from its opposition, and the changing ways of working that are energising Ford’s teams.

What does it mean to win the overall What Car? Car of the Year award?

“The blunt fact is that the What Car? Awards have enormous credibility with consumers. The style of reviewing is different; it’s not about having a good day out in a car that handles well – which the Puma does, by the way – but it takes in the overall ownership proposition. All the details over which we’ve laboured make a difference.

“That makes it a fantastic accolade. Because of the thoroughness, the award has believability with consumers. So I think it’s very important – especially so when you bring something new to the market where people don’t necessarily know exactly what it is and want some confirmation that what you are claiming to have done is actually true.”

Ford last won the What Car? Car of the Year title in 2009, with the Fiesta. What do you think has made the Puma stand out?

“I would highlight one key thing, and that is the way we worked. I’ve always admired Ford’s methods, but in recent years there has been a much more collaborative, agile mindset across the company. When we confronted issues, every department was in the room, talking openly about solutions. That meant we could work on different aspects of the project at the same time, not consecutively, and it meant everyone was always thinking holistically about what was best for the customer.

“Then the team set some very ambitious targets and worked incredibly hard in order that it could deliver them without having to compromise. The result is a package that has been crafted to fit the original brief, which of course was set according to customer needs.

“The Ecoboost petrol engine is a great example. We wanted good performance – 153bhp – but we didn’t want to deviate from the 99g/km average CO2 figure. If you look at our rivals, they are finding such goals impossible, but we took on the huge challenge and delivered.”

Does the Puma mark a watershed moment in Ford’s development approach, because – while they’ve generally been good – not all recent Fords have been clearly best-in-class cars?

“There are two things at play here. The first, which I’ve detailed already, is that all our departments really came together with the Puma.

“The second point is around how we bring cars to market. Like all car makers, we’re having to invest hard in future technology. But the point we have become good at making is that we are not only embracing the future but also bringing it forward to now.

“The Puma is a great example of that, with its mild hybrid engine. The all-electric Mach-E is another example; it delivers the future now, and its range and performance really are meeting customer demand. That’s exciting for our team and, more importantly, the public. We need to land the message that Ford has technology that is leading the market in an exciting way.”

Roelant de Waard with What Car? award

‘You must never settle for just doing another version of what you already have’

How important are SUV sales to Ford?

“They’re crucial, because they’re popular and profitable. But of course this is a cycle, and everything has its time in a cycle. So now the question isn’t so much ‘Can we do more SUVs?’, but it’s hard to stay ahead of the market. But, before you ask, no, I’m not going to tell you what we are thinking.

“But the point is that you must always look ahead and never settle for just doing another version of what you already have. Never just extrapolate. Always look to be first. In a business like automotive where the difference between profit and loss is wafer-thin, the premium for being first is very valuable.”

Do you see the all-electric Mustang Mach-E playing a role in that?

“It’s our North Star, yes. It shows our ambition. But customers need to sample reality – not just be sold a vision of the future. The beauty for us is that we’ve landed the Puma with a What Car? award; next we have the Kuga and then the Mach-E on the horizon. We are delivering.”

Your focus on commercial vehicles is also bearing fruit…

“Over 55 years, ‘Transit’ has become a byword for the category; that’s an incredible position to be in. We’ve grown our market share steadily across all sectors, and the plan is to continue to do that.

“In a number of cases, the UK is our pilot market. For example, with the hybrid version of the Transit, we piloted that in London, using some of the close relationships we have with fleet customers. Deep partnerships like that are what I believe makes Ford a bit different from our rivals.”

You mentioned customer-focused targets, but who sets them?

“Everyone will answer that question by saying the customer does – but the key point here is that they are more involved than ever.

What we now create at Ford is truly human-centric. We don’t judge for the customers; we ask them what they want every step of the way, and then we design solutions for those requirements. It’s an amazing process to watch – and at its worst, we can present something we think is the perfect solution and get the feedback of, ‘Thanks, nice try, but no’. At that point, we start again. it has made us a higher-performing team.”

Ford Puma on stage at the What Car? Awards

Does that extend to how retail deals with customers?

“Most definitely, yes. We have a very strong relationship with our dealers. I think there’s a lot of trust, but there’s also good creative tension; it’s a direct and open relationship.

“The dealers are very aware that the market and what the consumer wants are changing. I’m very pleased that we’re not pushing against the dealers. They know they have to evolve as well, and it won’t be overnight. The online sales models will evolve, and the number and mix of vehicles sold online is increasing. Our guiding principle is that we shouldn’t force the customers into any channel; they should have the choice to buy our cars the way they want to.”

How important is the UK market to Ford?

“The UK has been for many years our biggest market in Europe – which makes it our most important. That said, it isn’t our objective to be market leader; as the pound weakened last year, the business was less attractive, so we cut back supply.

“But in some ways, that makes it even more of a point of pride that we’re still number one. We will always run our business as just that – a business – but if we retain the number one position, it proves that we’re doing a good job. Our market share is strong, our SUV and commercial vehicle sales are strong, so we have many reasons to be positive.

“Now, of course, we hope for some more stability and certainty, so the market can grow again. Already the signs are of a more positive outlook.”

Do you feel customers are struggling to keep up with the pace at which cars are changing?

“I do see that many are holding off buying a new car, yes. The industry has a big job to do to explain what mild hybrid means compared with hybrid or plug-in hybrid, for instance. It’s our responsibility to make the differences clearer.

“But there will be a big shift as these cars become entirely mainstream. If you walk into a Ford dealer, you will soon have the option of everything, from petrol and diesel to fully electric. That can be liberating, because you know that the right solution will be available for you.”

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