Dealer's dandy idea leads to Ford research tie-up
Sustainable materials bring engineers, retailers together
Few dealers influence how automakers build cars. But if Ford vehicles someday have floor mats and cupholders made from dandelions, dealer Michael Pallotta will deserve much of the credit.
In 2010, Pallotta, a Ford-Lincoln dealer, wrote a letter to Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford and CEO Alan Mulally telling them about efforts to extract rubber from Russian dandelions at an Ohio State University research center in his city of Wooster, Ohio. Ford researchers had never heard of it.
A partnership was born. Now, Ford and Ohio State scientists are working to develop natural rubber from the milky-white substance that seeps from dandelion roots. The product eventually could replace some synthetic rubber used in vehicle parts. For Ford, it would be another example in a tradition of using sustainable materials in its vehicles.
"This is something we need to look at. This is great," Ford research engineer Angela Harris recalled thinking when she found out about the dandelion project.
In April 2010, Pallotta chartered a private jet to bring Ford engineers to Wooster for a two-day visit to the university's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Three months later, the Ohio State scientists traveled to Dearborn, Mich., to visit the Ford engineers.
For Pallotta, the work harks back to company founder Henry Ford's experiments with soybean-based plastics. Ford today uses foam derived from soybeans in seat cushions for nearly all North American-produced vehicles. Wheat straw-filled plastics are used for interior trim such as storage bins in the Ford Flex.
"Henry Ford was always about agriculture, so it was a nice fit," said Pallotta, 56, who at that time had just ended a stint on the Ford National Dealer Council and was still on the Ford dealer product committee.
The dealer heard about OSU's dandelion research while sitting on a chamber of commerce board with one of the university's scientists. "I wanted to make sure that nobody other than Ford got that opportunity because I just thought it would be a great marriage," he said.
To speed the matchmaking, Pallotta spent $5,000 to charter the jet that flew the researchers back and forth. He said it was a small payback for what Ford had done for him.
Pallotta grew up in a Cleveland suburb and got his start in the auto industry changing license plates and washing cars at a Ford dealership managed by his uncle. After high school, he sold cars but knew he needed a college degree to get his dream job working at Ford Motor Co.
After graduating from Penn State with a marketing degree, Pallotta worked in Ford's sales division in Cleveland and Kansas City, Mo. He left to work for one of the dealers he called on, and, in 1989, bought the Wooster store, now called Pallotta Ford-Lincoln, from that dealer.
It didn't stay in Vegas
Ford's environmental research is also touching other dealers. In 2008, the automaker sent Harris and 60 other engineers to a dealer show in Las Vegas to tout the company's technological progress.
Ford global marketing chief Jim Farley's goal was to educate the dealers so they could spread the word about the company's product advances to consumers.
Harris, who demonstrated Ford's soybean foam seat, received more than 100 dealer requests for samples. She had started working at Ford as a high school intern and is now part of the automaker's all-women biomaterials research team. But until the Las Vegas show, Harris had never met with dealers.
She had earned accolades at an internal tech fair and was chosen to present to the dealers. Harris now stays in regular contact with some of them.
"You realize how important they are," said Harris, 30, who last year was named top green engineer in Marie Claire magazine's Women on Top awards celebrating women under 40.
"You always have a lot of respect for them, but you don't usually get the opportunity to interact."
Many dealers she met at the Las Vegas show are in farming communities. Some are soybean farmers and count numerous soybean farmers as customers. But they hadn't known Ford was using material grown in their own fields.
Since the show, some dealers have marketed that connection more directly to local consumers. Pallotta displayed Ford's environmental seat at his county fair. Others have made commercials or borrowed samples of environmentally friendly car parts from Ford to exhibit at their dealerships or local events.
Chip Wood, 57, is one of them.
Wood, who owns Bryan Ford-Lincoln in Bryan, Ohio, met Harris at the Las Vegas show and has stayed in touch. He has made TV commercials highlighting Ford's environmental advances; the latest was in May. Harris has loaned him material and parts samples. Wood, a 13-year Ford dealer who went through the automaker's dealer development program, has displayed the samples at his store's annual new-model premiere night.
At that event last year, Wood paired the Ford materials with an electric vehicle developed by students at nearby Northwest State Community College. Both resonated with customers, he said.
Bryan, a city of 9,000 and home to the companies selling Dum Dum suckers and the Etch A Sketch, is an agricultural community with many residents who embrace environmental advances, he said.
"For us, it was just huge," said Wood, who got his start in the auto industry washing cars at a North Carolina Chrysler dealership. "More people came out and asked questions and wanted to know what else Ford was doing -- people we had never seen in a Ford showroom before."
Does that mean they became buyers? Maybe not immediately, but Wood says he eventually sold cars to some people because of that premiere night.
And it might not have happened without that initial meeting with Harris, said Wood, who plans to display Ford's sustainable materials and the college's latest EV this month at his 2012 premiere night.
"Until Jim [Farley] brought the engineers out to the field, we didn't have any contact with them," Wood said. "We got to talk to the people who really did the work."
You can reach Amy Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org.