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The Detroit News

Ailing Lincoln's new boss faces big task

Giombetti is optimistic even as reputations, sales figures have taken a beating in recent years.

By Eric Mayne / The Detroit News
Lincoln / Ford

The 2006 Lincoln Zephyr will be introduced this fall.

Al Giombetti

Age: 48

Title: Lincoln Mercury president

Hometown: Neshanic, N.J.

Education: Bachelor's degree in marketing and history, King's College, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.; MBA, Houston Baptist University.

Personal: Married 24 years to Karen; two children, Adam, 21, a student at Penn State; and Stefanie, 18, who enters MSU this fall.

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Al Giombetti, the new president of Ford's Lincoln Mercury division, sharpened his competitive edge playing recreational hockey at Ann Arbor's Ice Cube arena.

Mercury Milan

Lincoln Zephyr
His former colleague, Jim O'Sullivan, remembers when Giombetti broke his leg on the ice. The hard-nosed New Jersey native, then a rising Mercury executive, never missed a meeting.

"He traveled all over wearing a cast and walking on crutches," said O'Sullivan, a former Lincoln marketing chief who now heads Mazda Motor Corp.'s North American operations.

"He's a tough guy."

Giombetti will need all his mettle to succeed in his new assignment -- reviving Lincoln and Mercury, two once-proud Detroit brands whose reputations and sales figures have taken a beating in recent years.

Lincoln -- the top-selling luxury brand as recently as 1998 -- has been passed by nearly every upscale marque, including Nissan Motor Co.'s surging Infiniti division.

"I'm not afraid to understand what the truth is," Giombetti said in a recent interview. "The brand has to be consistent over a longer period of time than it has been."

The LS sedan and Navigator SUV helped make Lincoln a profitable star in the Ford stable in the late 1900s.

Today, with an aging, scaled-down car lineup and high gas prices dampening demand for large SUVs, the brand has lost some luster, with sales down 7 percent this year.

Mercury -- still considered one of Detroit's vulnerable brands -- is faring somewhat better by relying on rebadged Ford models. On the strength of new models such as the Mariner small SUV and Montego full-size sedan, Mercury sales are up 12 percent.

Giombetti's promotion was part of a series of moves triggered by the sudden departure of Earl Hesterberg earlier this year. Hesterberg oversaw sales and marketing for Ford, Lincoln and Mercury.

Giombetti replaced Darryl Hazel, now president of Ford division, and will try to make good on Hazel's pledge to double Lincoln Mercury's annual sales to 500,000 by 2010.

"We're going to grow the correct way," Giombetti said. "We're going to earn it. We're going to keep customers. And we're going to keep having something for them to be interested in, to keep them coming back and buying our products."

He did not waver when GM recently extended employee discounts to all customers. Giombetti urged dealers to stand firm.

"Delivering a clear, focused and simple message is the right thing to do in a marketplace full of complicated incentive and discount messages," he said in a memo to dealers.

"He's very much a nose-to-the-grindstone guy," said Jim Sanfilippo, market analyst with Detroit-based AMCI Inc.

Giombetti is preparing for the fall introduction of two key sedans -- the Mercury Milan and Lincoln Zephyr. The Milan is Mercury's first new midsize car in more than a decade, while the Zephyr is a breakthrough for Lincoln in the entry-level luxury market.

"(Zephyr) is going to get people to recognize that Lincoln is changing," Giombetti said.

After Zephyr, Giombetti said Lincoln's products will get stronger.

The last Aviator SUV rolls off the line in August, but the nameplate is expected to return on a crossover vehicle in time for the 2007 model year. A pair of Lincoln sedans -- based on the Volvo-inspired underpinnings of the Ford Five Hundred and Mercury Montego -- will follow.

"They have to be pure Lincoln," Giombetti said. "They have to have styling that people will be interested in. When they open the door, they'll know they're into a luxury vehicle. ... The sedans, to me, are going to give us that."

Despite its travails, industry analysts say Lincoln has potential.

"This is a company that's capable of spectacular products," Sanfilippo said. "Lincoln has been waiting and waiting and waiting. They're going to get their turn now."

Lincoln will continue to play in the SUV market with a redesigned Navigator and the addition of a stretched version. The new Mark LT pickup is generating buzz -- 40 percent of the nearly 2,000 units sold this year were delivered to customers who are new to the Ford lineup, Giombetti said.

Mercury will continue to be a bridge between the mainstream Ford lineup and upscale Lincoln . Analysts downplay the brand's apparent strategy of tweaking Ford vehicles to fill Mercury's pipeline.

"Given what their competitors do -- Toyota/Lexus, Honda/Acura, Nissan/Inifiniti -- they do this architectural sharing very, very well," Sanfilippo said. "One of the best examples of architectural sharing in the business is Ford with the Volvo S40 and Mazda3."

"We're optimistic, quietly," Giombetti said. "I have a saying: 'Every day counts, and so does every sale.' We're not going to be doing the volume of a Ford division, but we are very important in terms of who we bring to this business."

You can reach Eric Mayne at (313) 222-2443 or [email protected].
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