Even as they await what could be a devastating impact in the Southeast US from Hurricane Irma, many automakers have stepped up with aid programs to help Houstoners cope with the destruction they experienced from Harvey. But Ford might have come readier and heavier than many.
About 80 percent of Ford’s 115 dealers in metro Houston took on some sort of wind or water damage, and about a dozen suffered “really catastrophic damage including much of the dealership and their inventory being underwater,” Mark LaNeve, Ford’s Vice President of US Sales, Marketing and Service, told brandchannel.
“The first bad weekend I must have had 300 text messages personally from dealers,” he added.
Ford had learned procedurally how to most effectively address such major catastrophes in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. There was a checklist of 55 to 60 items awaiting activation when Harvey rolled in.
But LaNeve brought an extra measure of experience to the challenge of helping lead the company and its dealers to the other side of Harvey: He had extensive auto industry experience from previous stints, and when he was Allstate’s CMO beginning in 2009, the company hatched its still-running “Mayhem” advertising campaign.
brandchannel talked with LaNeve about how Ford is trying to help overcome the very real mayhem caused by Harvey and Irma.
How did Ford handle the weather crisis in Houston?
It start[ed] with getting some assessment of whether our employees are OK, our field-service team and parts depot. We believe there are about 115 dealers in the immediate affected area. Did they need any assistance? Are their people accounted for? Thank God, miracle of miracles, we didn’t get any reports about losses like that.
Then following up on that is really damage assessment to try to get our dealers back in business, help them to rebuild. Through our credit arm and getting them onto the ground with insurance adjusters through their subsidiary, American Road, [we] could get checks cut and dealers could continue to make payroll and take care of their people.
Now as, part of the back end of that process, we’re trying to rapidly refill inventory both new and used and meet what seems to be almost immediate demand for vehicles But while this was going on, dealers on their own in Texas and through their state association had committed close to $1 million for relief of affected dealers and their dealer base. [Dallas Cowboys owner] Jerry Jones had a telethon last week to raise money for the general relief fund and to contribute to the Red Cross and United Way and other charities; they donated an additional $200,000. We not only matched that $1.2 million but also another $300,000 in matching funds from Ford Motor Co. We believe that gets us to $3 million easily.
And our charitable foundation had already put up $500,000 in various relief efforts to American Red Cross, Salvation Army [and others] and made donations to some of the various first-responder organizations, including Ford Transit vans. We sell so many vehicles into the first-responder units and have relationships with them across the country; we feel a special affinity with those folks.
For Ford owners, you’ve also got a program called “Texas Is Family,” which offers flooding victims a benefit that not too many people get to experience.
Yes, the final piece is that as tragic as it is, people need to get their lives started back together. So we wanted to make it easy for people to get replacement vehicles. On the new vehicle side, we talked to a lot of dealers who talked to customers, and customers were traumatized and were in a big hurry to get a new vehicle. The easiest thing to do is to offer our Ford employee price. From what I understand over the weekend [dealers] already wrote a lot of business, and that’s an incremental incentive.
How does the response align with the Ford brand?
Part of the DNA of your brand is the values and how you react. Are you consistent in your value system? Ford [has a very distinctive] DNA; it’s family, heritage, progress. And we’re very much—I’ve worked at other car companies and Ford feels different, and it’s a family company. When we’re with our dealers they feel part of our family.
You were with Allstate. If you were still there you’d probably already be assessing potential damage from Hurricane Irma. Are you doing that with Ford?
I was looking at Irma [news] today. It’s a Category 5. It sure doesn’t look good. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. The country is better at this post-Katrina.
What is likely to be the impact of Harvey on auto sales, and therefore on Ford, across the country?
Our top priority is the security of our people and helping everyone to get people back on their feet. But our experience from Katrina is that business is soft as people get their feet back under them. Then you’ve got a snap-back effect and, over a four- to six-month period, sales are back to normal or even a bit positive.
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