A new dawn for Ford in the Middle East region

Ford's chief operating officer in Europe explains the American motor giant's strategy in the Middle East.

Barbara Samardzich, who is a driving force of Ford in the region. Courtesy Ford
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Barbara Samardzich has been chief operating officer for Ford in Europe for 10 months now and has been an intrinsic part of the auto giant since 1990, as what you might term an “engineering genius”. It’s people like Samardzich who have turned Ford around in the past 20 years, making its cars drive better than any of their rivals and upping their perceived quality levels to a point that would have seemed ludicrous just a decade ago. And she’s here, in Dubai, on her first visit to the region.

The reason for her visit? Ford is expanding in the Middle East and the company’s Dubai operation will be pivotal in brightening its future. It is, she says, a “brand-new business unit” and it’s being headed up by Jim Benintende, the president of Ford Middle East and Africa, who has spent the past few years in the region gearing up for this moment. Between them, they’re gunning for a greater customer base and market share, capitalising on recent successes.

“I’ve come to have a greater understanding,” says Samardzich, “of the regional pressures faced here, when it comes to how cars are expected to perform.” Obviously the UAE summer temperatures have been a bit of a surprise. “And one of the reasons I’m here is to do a ride and drive in some of the new products, such as the F-150, that we’ll be rolling out here over the next few months.”

The new business unit that she mentions was officially opened on January 1 this year. Benintende explains that, up until that point, there really hadn’t been a comprehensive approach to Ford’s operations in the Middle East and Africa region. “We can now put the proper focus on development for Ford here and, for the past seven months, I’ve been on a kind of roadshow throughout the region to explore the possibilities. I was based here from 1993 to 2006, so I do have a fair bit of history with the region, but not so much with Sub-Saharan Africa, which is, I ­believe, the final frontier for Ford as a company.”

Last year, he says, Ford sold approximately 85,000 vehicles in the region – that’s no mean feat, but the company is gunning for even bigger numbers for 2014. As with many companies, July was a record month for sales, with Ford shifting about 8,500 units in the Middle East and selling a further 10,000 in Africa – so it’s obvious that, while other markets are still struggling, this is a key region for one of the biggest players in the industry. “We’ve announced 25 new models up to 2016,” he adds, “and the new designs are really resonating with customers.”

In case you didn’t know, Ford’s figures here also include the Lincoln brand, and we can expect to see some fairly aggressive marketing of that American staple over the coming months as it finds its feet again in a market awash with cars and trucks from the likes of Chrysler and GM. But Ford’s and Lincoln’s designs are really what set them apart from their competitors, while their more global approach to marketing makes them more palatable to European customers.

“We developed a brand DNA for Ford,” says Samardzich. “What we wanted for steering metrics, ride and handling, braking, noise, vibration and harshness measures – and we tested out those metrics in each region we were going to compete in. Our feedback came in from customers and we refined everything to come up with that DNA. The new product, especially, we know will be welcomed by customers wherever they are in the world.”

Both agree that Dubai is a perfect business hub, but, I wonder, can they ever foresee a time when Ford’s cars are actually made right here in the UAE? Would it not make sense to build them in the country they’re distributed from? Neither will rule it out for the future, but it’s a case, they say, of one step at a time – improvements to customer service are, right now, paramount. However, it’s obvious that the UAE’s central location is something that could be further exploited when it comes to manufacturing. Perhaps passenger cars bearing the stamp “Made in the UAE” aren’t that far away after all.

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