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Ford assures shareholders that change is underway

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News
Ford CEO James Hackett told shareholders this morning: "We spent time working through how to build resilience in the design of Ford so that we could be here for very, very long time."

Ford Motor Co. officials told shareholders Thursday that the pieces are in place for the automaker to drive profits higher — and reaffirmed a years-long assurance that the stock price would soon grow.

"We spent time working through how to build resilience in the design of Ford so that we could be here for very, very long time," Jim Hackett told shareholders during the digital meeting Thursday morning. "This work wasn't moving too slowly, nor was it too futuristic. Rather, we just worked hard at understanding the key drivers to improving our returns on invested capital."

Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford fielded multiple questions from shareholders, some of which echoed questions asked during the annual meetings in 2017 before Hackett was CEO and in 2018 after his first year at the helm.

Ford shareholders voted against eliminating the Ford family's special class of shares that gives the family more voting power. They also voted against lobbying disclosures and political spending disclosures.

Shareholders wanted to know when Ford's stock price would grow. They asked if the company had plans to replace sedans and affordable small cars the company is cutting from its lineup. Questions were raised about the company's plan for electric and autonomous vehicles. And those on teleconference also wanted to know how Hackett had positioned the automaker to brave a recession, should one hit the U.S.

Ford shares have climbed nearly 30% since the start of the year, though shares are still off around 8% since Hackett was appointed CEO in May 2017. At that time, Ford shares had fallen under the direction of former CEO Mark Fields. After worse-than-expected financial results in 2018, the stock price stalled early this year before Hackett and Ford began making moves investors wanted to see.

The automaker beat expectations with its first-quarter results, and reaffirmed it would have better full-year results in 2019 than it had the year prior. Ford also announced a $500 million investment in Plymouth-based electric vehicle startup Rivian Automotive LLC, and a partnership with Amazon on a cloud service.

"Our stock price kind of languished as a result of us slogging through some very necessary but difficult changes," Bill Ford said. "It was also rewarding to see though that when our first quarter results were announced that our stock price responded. We're not where we're going to be, we know that, but we're pleased. ... Our stock price is responding."

Hackett explained again why the automaker was cutting sedans from the lineup: U.S. consumers want vehicles that sit up higher and have more room. Ford's light-weighting technology and plans for hybrid engines are expected to produce larger vehicles with the fuel efficiency offered by sedans and small cars. 

The automaker plans to launch new vehicles that will retain customers currently driving Focuses and Fusions. Customers who drive those vehicles because they're affordable will get new, as-yet-unannounced vehicles that are affordable while offering the ride height and size favored by U.S. consumers, Hackett said. 

"We do have products coming that we think are very affordable," Bill Ford said.

Hackett and Bill Ford also said the automaker has "a lot coming" in regard to its previously announced plans for hybrid and battery electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles. Ford plans to spend $11 billion to develop a slew of electrified vehicles over the next few years. That includes a battery-electric performance crossover and a hybrid Bronco. Hackett said Ford will launch 16 battery electric vehicles by 2022.

Meantime, the automaker is moving to boost market share around the world, the executives said. The $25.5 billion in cost cuts are moving steadily. And the $11 billion global restructuring effort is underway. Retiring Chief Financial Officer Bob Shanks and Hackett said the automaker is restructuring the business so that it makes money in bad times as well as tough times.

The automaker aims to "break even" at the point where automakers sell 11 million vehicles in the U.S. Automakers are selling around 17 million vehicles the last few years. The low point in the great recession was 10.6 million, Shanks said.

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau