Trust and Vision are Keys to Success for Freshman FordDirect CEO

Once upon a time, way back in the mid-1990s, there were 76 GM dealers online. 76. Out of thousands overall.

Stacey Coopes CEO of FordDirect

Stacey Coopes is well aware of that fact. She was with Deloitte Consulting and General Motors Corp. was her client at the time. One of her jobs was to help make sense of “The Internet.”

Since then a lot of things have changed.

Almost all car dealers are online in one way or another and Coopes has gone over to the client side -“ at GM’s archrival Ford Motor Co.

Now, after eight years with the Dearborn, Mich. -“ based company, Coopes is celebrating her first anniversary as the CEO of FordDirect, the Ford partnership with its dealers to make potential customers’ online experience more in line with their showroom experience.

“We believe that dealers are critical to the sales experience,” Coopes explains. “The real opportunity is in connecting the online to the offline experience. If you think about it, consumers spend about eight-plus hours on average researching the vehicles that they’re interested in -“ what inventory is available, what options and features, looking at what the incentives are. Then, when they get to the dealership, they have to start all over again. We’re building all kinds of capabilities to help connect that online research and make sure all the information that the customer has gathered seamlessly connects to their experience when they’re in the dealership.”

With a degree in engineering plus an MBA from the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, Coopes seems ideally suited to her new job. After a year in the top spot, how have things changed?

“You definitely have more accountability to guide the organization and to make the calls when they need to be made,” she responds. “But, you also have the responsibility to elevate everyone else in the organization so they can assume more leadership and take on more accountability themselves.

“You are much less a ‘do-er’ than you were,” Coopes laughs. “You have to push the company forward.”

Understanding the Big Picture
Being in the top box on the org chart brings a different perspective, says Coopes. “You have to be the one who looks at things from the best interests of FordDirect, versus individual groups within the company. You have to help people understand the whole, as opposed to just their part of the business. How their roles and responsibilities have to connect across the company to make your larger initiatives work.

“I’ve found I’m more of a mentor now and spend a lot of time coaching and counseling -“ helping people see the big picture. That takes a lot of time.”

Many CEOs, even experienced ones, have coaches and mentors of their own. Coopes, 42, explains that instead of having a personal coach she “joined YPO, the Young Presidents Organization and I’m in a mentored relationship with 10 other CEOs. It’s so valuable. If you have a safe place to go talk about your challenges and get feedback, it really helps take your leadership to the next level. We’ve instituted some of those peer groups within FordDirect.”

Another thing that Coopes has learned over her first year is that seeing that big picture, having a vision of where she wants to take her company, has its own challenges.

“Being the CEO definitely gives you the platform to communicate your vision,” Coopes says. “To actually accomplish your vision, however, takes a lot of work. I spend a lot of time making sure that vision is understood. You have to paint the vision so that people can visualize it and understand how to get there.”

That seems to be a never-ending communication process.

“You have to keep restating the vision because, as time goes on, it gets framed in different perspectives. So we keep the painting fresh by using documents, going offsite as a leadership team -“ tweaking it when necessary to make it our own. We also have monthly staff meetings where we talk about our projects and how they relate to our vision. We’ve baked the vision into our employee development plan. It’s a multifaceted way that you need to approach it, so that it becomes second nature for everyone.”

With her background in consulting, it’s only natural that Coopes laughs when she adds, “I give a lot of PowerPoints!”

When developing or introducing a new product offering, Coopes says that it’s important to show how it relates to the overall vision. “We put new projects through a development process that evaluates them against our strategy and core objectives.”

Building Trust
Another key element of Coopes’ first year has been gaining trust.

“The biggest element that I’ve focused on in my first year is trust, and how you build trust -“ both internally and externally. A lot of times that trust doesn’t come naturally. It’s only when it’s established that things start moving quickly and efficiently.

“We’ve spent a lot of time on what the core attributes are that will build trusting relationships with our customers. A lot of that revolves around transparency and communications. Even internally those are the key components -“ that we are able to look at things from different perspectives.”

Coopes’ customers are predominately male car dealers, many running dealerships that were started by their dad or grandfather. Does that make it harder for her as a woman to gain their trust? “I don’t think it’s a gender issue,” she replies. “I think the key thing for them is whether I understand their business, and get where they’re coming from.”

To develop the trust she seeks, Coopes would “go out and visit dealerships across the country. When we were building the Ford online dealer ordering system I would sit there with them and place orders. I would kind of live the day through their eyes. That builds a lot of trust and credibility because they see I care enough to come out and spend the time. It really benefits me as well because I get to see firsthand what the challenges and obstacles that the dealers have in using some of the things that we’re working on.

“I had to place a lot of orders and got a lot of chuckles as I was going through the process.

“It’s really more that willingness to put yourself out there and live in your customer’s shoes to understand what their true requirements are. If you do that, whether you’re male or female, you’ll build that trust.”

Part of Coopes’ vision for FordDirect is “that we want to be the trusted adviser for our customers for all of the digital services that they’re faced with everyday.

“The industry is exploding and there are many new suppliers and partners that are popping up in many new spaces that haven’t been contemplated by the dealers before. We want to do the due diligence that will help the dealers decide which will provide the best return on their investment and help them take their digital presence to the next level.”

One way to get to the next level, Coopes says, is to build on what already exists. “We’re helping dealers mine their existing customer data because the information they have already in their systems, the happy owners that they have, will help them reestablish their relationships and increase that repurchase rate. We’re helping consolidate customer communication across Ford Motor Co.”

And that’s just in the first year.