Lewis Booth with the new Jaguar XK
Cape Town - "The South African team is doing well". That's the news from top Ford international boss Lewis Booth, who scoffed at claims made last week that job losses were in the offing here in the wake of restructuring in the US.
In an exclusive interview at Cape Town's Killarney race track, where Booth was attending the world launch of a new Jaguar sports car, he told me no Ford operations outside North America would be affected by the "Way Forward" plan announced for Ford in the US.
Booth is the most senior Ford man in Europe and also boss of Ford's Premier Automotive Group, which comprises top prestige brands - Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover, and Volvo - and is considered the "jewel in the crown" of Ford's European operations.
Managing director of Ford's SA operations until he left here in 1999 to take over, firstly, Ford's Asia-Pacific region, and later Mazda Motors in Japan, he is considered by many to be the arch "fixer" of problem areas within the Ford group, with an extremely high success rate.
"Naturally Ford SA workers are concerned by the message being put out (in statements by Cosatu), but as far as restructuring is concerned this is a North American plan, " he said.
"The only geographic region in Ford that is not making money is North America. All the rest are making money".
Booth said the most telling thing was that when Land Rover Defender production was switched from South Africa to the UK at the end of last year in a consolidation move that also affected other Defender markets, all the workers were re-deployed within the SA operation.
Production of the slow-selling Ford Ikon small car was also stopped at the end of last year, but this was primarily to free up plant capacity to ramp up local production of the Ford Focus, which is enjoying a huge sales success both in South Africa, and more importantly, in Australia, Ford SA's largest export market for fully built-up cars.
Indeed, reports from Australia suggest that sales growth for the Focus there is being held back by shortage of stock from SA.
Booth said a study was in progress that might also see local production of the Volvo S40 stop at Ford SA's Pretoria plant, but, again, this would be to free up more capacity for Focus, if it happened.
"This is about the most efficient solution for both South Africa and Europe, but I must stress that Volvo has not yet completed the study.
"We will see what makes best business sense - but I want to point out that about 50% of Volvo S40s currently sold in South Africa are imported models because the Pretoria plant is working flat out on the Focus.
"There will always be balancing decisions about what's best for the business. These things happen every day".
Booth has also visited various dealerships while in South Africa - where he will be taking a short holiday with his wife in the next few days - and he says he is pleased with developments here.
"I am extremely excited by the South African motor industry," he said.
"I see continual investment, I see up-skilling of workers, I see much more complete manufacturing than there used to be. I see a business structure that makes much more sense.
"And I see higher volumes and few locally made models."
He said much of the reason for the growth of the industry should be laid at the feet of good management of the SA economy.
"I am still a walking advertisement for South Africa," he said.
"The optimism I saw in 1999 was justified, and I am pleased, for instance, that with this Jaguar launch we are able to bring 700 overseas journalists and guests to South Africa.
He said there had been extremely positive reactions from many who had never visited South Africa before - about the country, the roads, and the people - and he had been told several times that "this was the best launch we have ever done".