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Ford on ‘Front-End’ of Worldwide Profit Growth: CEO

The recent run-up in Ford stock to 52-week highs and the company's ability to double its quarterly dividend are proof that the automaker's turnaround plan is "clearly working," Ford CEO Alan Mulally said in a "First on CNBC" interview on Monday from the Detroit Auto Show.

"We decided to focus on Ford and the Lincoln brands," he said on "Squawk Box," adding that the move allowed for the dividend increase "with a commitment to sustain" it. Last week, Ford upped its quarterly dividend to 10 cents a share, the highest level in seven years.

(Read More: Ford doubles dividend to highest in 7 years)

Last Friday, Ford also announced plans to hire 2,200 salaried workers in the U.S. in 2013, following 8,100 new hourly and salary hires last year.

But despite these rosy developments, Standard & Poor's said Sunday it wants to see Ford have a broader return in profits before it gives the automaker an investment-grade credit rating.

In response, Mulally told CNBC that Ford is ahead of schedule in its efforts to overhaul operations in two key global regions.

"We're profitable in Asia-Pacific right now. We're restructuring, like we did in the United States, in Europe so we can operate profitably there," he said. "We're just on the front-end of delivering that profitable growth around the world."

But Ford does expect to lose at least $3 billion in Europe over the next two years — a challenge Mulally will continue to oversee. He agreed in November to stay on as CEO for at least that long, which would be a year longer than analysts had expected.

As for new products, Ford announced at the auto show Monday a new compact luxury crossover, the Lincoln MKC, which shares its underpinnings with the Ford Escape.

"There really isn't a luxury vehicle in that C-segment today, an SUV. That is the fastest-growing segment: 60 percent growth last year," Mulally said. "Combine that with the MKZ [sedan], which in the largest luxury segment, I think we're going to start to be in the absolute sweet spot for bringing the luxury back for Lincoln."

Calling Lincoln a strong brand because of its history, he told CNBC why Ford had turned its attention elsewhere: "We bought Aston Martin and Jaguar and Land Rover and Volvo, so we stopped investing in Lincoln."

But that's changing, Mulally said, as Ford focuses primarily on ramping up the brand in the U.S. and taking advantage of its popularity in China.

Ford is also concentrating on its market-leading F-Series pick-up. While Mulally was tight-lipped about an announcement set for Tuesday in that space, he did drop a hint to CNBC about a "concept vehicle" that's going to "make your eyes water." Ford is expected to unveil the concept of the next-generation of the F-Series line.

But overall in 2012, Ford lost U.S. market share, which stood at 15.5 percent, down from 16.8 percent the prior year. Ford sales were up 4.7 percent last year to 2.3 million vehicles.

For the industry, U.S. auto sales increased 13.4 percent to a five-year high of 14.5 million vehicles in 2012, and auto research firm Polk estimates that new vehicle registrations should top 15 million this year.

(Read More: Auto industry posts best U.S. sales year since 2007)

—By CNBC's Phil LeBeau; Follow him on Twitter @LeBeauCarNews

Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com

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