Through July, sales of the Expedition/Navigator SUV’s are down 38 and 18%. Demand for the F-150 is off 12.3%.
Sharon Terlep and Josee Valcourt - Detroit News - August 19, 2006
2007 Ford Expedition - How do you overcome an almost 40% loss in sales?
WAYNE - Building behemoth SUVs and pickup trucks in the heart of Ford country once guaranteed a secure job.
Ford Motor Co.'s Michigan Truck Plant in Wayne was the most profitable auto plant in the world in the late 1990s. And the Dearborn Truck Plant at Ford's famed Rouge complex was touted as a showpiece of the automaker's rich history and groundbreaking innovation when it launched F-150 pickup production three years ago.
On Friday, Ford said both plants will face temporary shutdowns for the rest of the year as part of the automaker's huge production cuts. For workers, the news was a sobering reminder that few jobs are safe in Detroit's sputtering auto industry.
"I've never seen it like this here before," Brian Quantz, vice president of UAW Local 900, which represents workers at Michigan Truck, said Friday. He slapped a plastic baseball bat against his desk to emphasize points while fielding calls from anxious workers.
"People are so scared of losing their jobs," he said.
Ford is cutting truck production in North America to bend to the demands of drivers fretting about high gas prices who are turning to smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles.
Through July, sales of the Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator sport utility vehicles, both built at Michigan Truck, are down 38 percent and 18 percent. Demand for the F-150 pickup is off 12.3 percent.
News of the production cuts comes as Michigan Truck was hoping for a comeback.
The largest of Ford's five Michigan assembly sites, the factory was once the most profitable of all auto plants, generating $10 billion a year in revenues in the late 1990s, when SUV sales were soaring.
"They were so hot when they came out," Quantz said of the Expedition and Navigator. "But those models are 10 years old. Gas prices are going up and society is changing."
The factory got a $300 million makeover last year and is set to start production of redesigned versions of the Expedition and Navigator, as well as new, longer models of the SUVs.
But workers who used to stress about long hours and scrambling to keep up with surging demand are now worried they could lose their hours, jobs or even their plant.
Quantz said he fielded more than a dozen phone calls by Friday afternoon from workers desperate for details about the cuts.
Many employees spent the day glued to televisions and cell phones in a quest to root out hard-to-find specifics.
Michigan Truck workers have been off work since Thursday afternoon, when a glitch with a part from an outside supplier caused a shutdown. They are scheduled to return Monday.
"My big concern is: Will the plant remain open?" said Southfield's Peggy Johnson, a team leader who has worked at Michigan Truck for 11 years. "I'm trying to keep an optimistic outlook and hope they find a solution that benefits us and the company."
Quantz said he expects Ford will shut down some production lines and offer more buyouts.
He and others at the plant hope Ford will send another line of trucks their way. Part of last year's renovation was a new flexible production line at the plant, capable of producing several models on the same line.
Across town at Ford's Dearborn Truck Plant, employees knew it was only a matter of time before high gas prices forced a slowdown in production of the F-150 pickup.
"People were still buying (F-150s) even when gas went over $2," said Ron Turner, 53, who works in the factory's paint shop. "We were still working overtime. But when it went over $3, we got worried."
Ford's production cuts likely will hit the slow-selling F-series trucks first and hardest, said Catherine Madden, production analyst for Waltham, Mass.-based Global Insight Inc.
Ford said the F-Series will account for more than half the fourth-quarter manufacturing slowdown.
"They're certainly at risk for no longer being the No. 1 selling pickup truck in America this year," Madden said. "All of these (truck brand) products are feeling the pressures in the market."
Dearborn workers had felt shielded from consumers' shift away from trucks to more fuel-efficient cars because they were building the most popular pickup in the United States.
Workers first grew anxious about the future when their hours changed.
Typically, employees at the plant work a 10-hour shift, racking up two hours of overtime, but shifts were shortened to fewer than eight hours several weeks ago.
"That's when we knew things weren't right," said Everage Wouldfolk, a body shop worker who has been at Ford for 37 years and plans to retire in December.
Workers fear all F-150 production will be transferred to Ford's Kentucky Truck Plant in Louisville, where the pickup has been built for years.
"This plant just started building F-150s about three years ago," Turner said.
"The Ford Mustang used to be built here. Kentucky is known as the truck plant."
Ford's decision to cut production at the Dearborn plant hasn't completely rattled Turner. He's more concerned about being forced into early retirement if Ford's "Way Forward" restructuring plan fails to restore profits at the automaker.
John Brown, who works in the Dearborn body shop, also is counting on the "Way Forward" strategy to save his pension.
"But many of us joke that first Ford has to catch up," he said.
Kenneth Hicks, 54, of Detroit, meanwhile, is confident the automaker's plan will be achieved.
"Ford always has a way to rebound," Hicks said. "Yeah, it seems like doom and gloom, but all is not lost."