The Western United States is big, broad, and bustling with heavy industry, and Don Borthwick is right in the middle of it — figuratively, at least — as Ford Motor Co.’s Western regional sales manager for commercial. From his offices at the OEM’s headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., Borthwick leads a 10-person team that includes eight strategically located field representatives serving fleet customers in 18 states.
Much of their business revolves around trucks and vans, including America’s No. 1-selling vehicle, the venerable F-150 light-duty pickup.
“We’re dealing with the most sophisticated, knowledgeable buyers on the planet, and it really helps to have seasoned, experienced sales professionals,” Borthwick said. “Our field people understand the customer, their specific industry, and the type of product they need and desire. And they understand how our product differentiates itself from the competition.”
Ford's Western Regional Sales Manager
Borthwick is a Michigan native who grew up in Northville, a Detroit suburb, and is a long-term Ford employee. He joined the company in 1985 as a member of the Ford College Graduate Program, specializing in marketing and sales. He had initially intended to forge a career as a numbers man after studying accounting at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
He enjoyed an auspicious start in the field, securing a position at Deloitte, which is currently ranked as the world’s largest accounting firm. It didn’t last.
“That profession just wasn’t me,” Borthwick said. “I didn’t really like the work and knew it pretty early on. So I started looking.”
He didn’t have to go far to find his next job. In the mid-1980s, Deloitte’s Detroit office and Ford’s marketing and sales operations were housed in the same complex. Borthwick was hired in April 1985 and began what he describes as a “typical career path”: calling on dealers, learning the retail side of the business, and progressing upward through positions in district and regional sales offices.
He spent significant time in Milwaukee and Chicago and then Atlanta, which he left in 1999 to return to the Detroit area full-time. Relocation may not be for everyone, but for Borthwick, it was a positive experience and one that he believes made him a more well-rounded person and created lasting friendships.
“In the car business, you have extreme highs and lows. It was, in the good years, a lot of fun. I made a lot of friends working in those small teams, and the dealers I was working with became not only business partners but friends as well. And when the tough times come, that’s whom you learn to count on.” In the rare case in which a product line was not selling well, he added, those partnerships were the company’s saving grace. “They worked with us to find ways to retail them. We took a lot of pride in helping dealers, and they put a lot of pride in helping the company. It was very much a team approach and a team effort.”
Managing Operations in the West
Borthwick has led Ford’s Western fleet sales for the past seven years. His territory is wide-ranging and highly diverse in numerous ways, extending west to Hawaii, north to Alaska, and south to Texas. But he doesn’t see it as a state-to-state job, noting, for example, that a client based in California, could be procuring vehicles that will operate all over the country. Instead, he and his team focus on learning about the various industries they support and how Ford’s products will be used.
“We have to be able to adjust and, in some instances, anticipate the needs of an industry. We’ve done a good job, but it is challenging.” From the “oil patch” to the mining industry, Borthwick added, trucks rule the land, and Borthwick believes Ford has that market all but cornered. “Ford pickups account for more than one out of every two registrations in the commercial business. The customers really value our product, and the product does what it’s intended to do.”
The vast majority of those orders require some customization, typically facilitated through the client’s Ford dealer and the factory’s transportation division. The company works closely with a number of trusted upfitters as well as an extended network of shops with which various clients have existing partnerships.
Good communication is key to a successful and expedient upfit, Borthwick said, but “whatever the customer wants in terms of the vehicle and how it should perform, we will do our best to get it the way they want it. Most industries are looking for a very specific type of truck or van. They have a very specific spec they want us to build to and that’s part of the knowledge the field sales team has to have.”
Fleet Customer Service
Equally important to Borthwick’s team’s success is the ability to support fleet clients before and after the sale. Finding the right fit can be a complicated pursuit, particularly as more companies attempt to rightsize their fleet operations. For executives, that could mean migrating from six-cylinder D-class sedans to a four-cylinder C- or B-class car or SUV. As for service fleets, compact van options continue to proliferate, and even the F-150 has lost some weight in recent generations.
“The commercial fleet business is not early adopters of new products and technology. They’re entrusted with spending their company’s money judiciously,” Borthwick said. “It’s up to us to make sure they’re educated, have the facts, and have the chance to see, drive, and feel the product.”
Much of his team’s time is spent consulting on such matters as capability, total cost of ownership, and utilization analyses — for which Borthwick’s accounting background remains applicable — they are regularly asked to offer input on reports produced by clients’ fleet management companies. Any of those conversations could result in changes to vehicle selection as well as a company’s business processes.
“We do that each and every week with some customers. There are no problems or issues we aren’t willing to attempt to solve,” Borthwick said. “Ford Motor Company is a leader in the truck business for a variety of reasons. We have a huge array of commercial products that can fit just about any need. Couple that with the experience and knowledge of our sales team, we really believe we can assist any fleet manager or company to provide the vehicles they need.”