If the term Renaissance Man could translate to a corporation, Ford might be the Leonardo da Vinci of the automotive world. That seemed to be an overarching theme of Ford Pro’s event in Sonoma and Napa Valleys this week.
You could’ve called it a media event, as trade and auto journalists were on hand to drive the 2022 Ford E-Transit and ride in (but not yet drive) the Ford F-150 Lightning. But to keep the Renaissance Man analogy, Ford was intent on showing how it’s diversifying into new areas of expertise — and revenue streams — and has a plan in a broader picture.
First, the audience: There was Bloomberg Television’s Emily Chang interviewing Salesforce founder and CEO Mark Benioff and Ford CEO Jim Farley. There were conversations around sustainable winemaking with members of the Sonoma County Winegrowers at Dutton Ranch, one of the largest vineyards in Sonoma. In addition to the usual media types, founders of new mobility startups and equity analysts mixed with green energy investors and a writer for Wine Enthusiast.
And there was Francis Ford Coppola. In an unannounced treat before dinner at his Inglenook Estate Winery, Coppola sat down for a fireside chat with Ford Pro CEO Ted Cannis. They talked about Coppola’s personal history with Ford (he was born in Detroit at Henry Ford Hospital and named in honor of Henry Ford), how he got into winemaking (his family made homemade wine during the Prohibition era), being an early EV adopter, his grave concerns for our planet, and — oh yeah — how the new F-150 Lightning will be put to work harvesting grapes and making wine.
This event could also be called the debutante ball for Ford Pro, a separate global vehicle services and distribution business within Ford, launched in May 2021 and designed to specifically serve commercial customers. With the curated guest list, great food and wine, and picturesque settings, Page Six would’ve approved.
Part of the message was that Ford Pro isn’t just another departmental reorg and rebranding. The business is built for the future — organized in a cloud-based services format, connecting telematics and data to physical services around financing, commercial vehicle sales, EV consultation, upfitting, and maintenance. At the event Ford Pro unveiled Ford Pro Intelligence, its new digital fleet management platform that ties those services into a single dashboard.
“Ford Pro is one of the biggest bets we’ve made to meet a connected, electric mobility future,” said Farley from the stage, putting an exclamation point on Ford’s intent.
The broader picture involves how the world will use and consume vehicles in this new era of electrification and connectivity. In this environment — combined with society’s reduce, reuse, and recycle mantra and the longer-term specter of autonomy — diversification is now a necessity.
“I think our vehicles will still be really important, but I do believe the loyalty to the brand is going to be driven by the software experience,” Farley added later to Chang.
To make good on the new revenue stream possibilities to this audience, Ford Pro demonstrated VIIZR, its new Software as a Service tool for small businesses and tradespeople. Using a cloud platform, VIIZR integrates Ford Pro and Salesforce Field Service to schedule field appointments, send invoices, and manage customer relationships from one digital platform.
Ford Pro says small businesses could save as much as 25 hours a week for organizations with fewer than 20 employees. The cost is $39 a month per user.
VIIZR has only a tangential relationship to commercial vehicles. That bears reiterating: An automaker is launching a product that doesn’t necessarily involve vehicles. Ford Pro sees an opportunity to leverage its trust and longstanding relationships with small businesses, a perennially underserved market that is still often reliant on manual processes.
Where are the other new revenue streams?
Chang prodded Farley on Ford’s public statement that it could generate $20 billion in yearly revenue on connected vehicle services for retail and commercial by 2030. He answered by saying that half of Ford’s revenue specifically in its commercial business could be subscriptions involving physical services or software.
Farley didn’t get into product plans but said those subscriptions could involve service and maintenance prognostics, telematics tools such as dynamic routing, and in-cab driver coaching.
Regarding an obvious near-term subscription opportunity: Ford is upping the ante on an OEM-based telematics offering.
Yes, we’ve been there before. Fleet operators will remember the Telogis-powered Crew Chief, which became Ford Telematics, a system that grew up in a market populated by robust third-party systems. Those systems gained greater traction than Ford’s for a variety of reasons, including price point, features, and plug-and-play interoperability with other automakers’ vehicles.
What could give Ford a competitive edge this time? Electrification, Ford says. Here’s why:
Data is the backbone of smart fleet electrification. Ford believes it’s best suited to extract, collate, and analyze the data coming through their proprietary factory modems and then combine that data seamlessly with market intelligence and other services and benefits (think vehicle preconditioning, for one).
Combining telematics with the full suite of services in the Ford Pro ecosystem and deriving insights from a single dashboard will be an “easy button” for fleets, or so the rationale goes.
Ford’s telematics system is available for any size fleet. But like VIIZR, it makes more sense for small businesses, in which telematics penetration is many percentage points below their large fleet brothers.
Ford Pro now offers a plug-in device for other makes and models. For larger fleets with telematics already, Ford Pro says an API will allow systems to exchange data. I’ll be eager to gain feedback from fleet users on the success of these integrations and their views on migrating to an entirely new system.
In general, could these solutions collectively come close to half of Ford’s commercial revenue? The answer will take years to fully realize, seemingly from revenue streams unknown at present. They’ll be built on the usefulness of the data, according to Farley. That said, 2030 is already looming on the horizon.
We’ll have to wait for those answers but stay close to the progress. One thing is certain — with new services and increasing competition, the customer wins.
Back to the bigger picture, Renaissance Men, and Coppola. In the words of Thoreau, he has “lived deep and sucked out all the marrow of life.” And at 82, he still had a lot to say during our visit.
On filmmaking and taking creative chances stylistically from American Graffiti and the Godfather to Apocalypse Now and Dracula:
“I learn by always choosing to do something I don't know how to do. When I made the Godfather, it made a lot of sense to continue doing gangster pictures. … But just as I didn't know how to make the Godfather, I wanted to go out and do something I didn't know how to do. By doing things you don't know how to do, you learn.”
“When you make wine, the important thing to understand is that in the first year it’s like a baby. All you know is that it's healthy, (but) you don't know if they're going to grow up and be a great person. … If we took 122 (grape) parcels and put them in a tank for a year, all we would know is which ones are healthy. But we have no idea which are going to be great or not so great. That takes a lot more time.”
On the joy of work and making the Earth a better place:
“All work that you do, whether it's movies or cars or design, or imagining a society where work is making a difference for everybody ... as you do in building cars, as I do in making wines … It's all the same thing. It's about using creativity. It’s about the joy of living and what this extraordinary Earth offers us. … We are learning from nature; nature is the teacher. … All we have to do is listen and try to take that extraordinary lesson.”
Renaissance Man indeed.