Ford: Running the real Made in Dagenham

All-American Ford chief Barb Samardzich aims to inject glamour and pizazz into Essex’s car factory, says Laura Chesters
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The Independent Online

A giant, grey office block in the Essex countryside near Basildon could hardly be described as glamorous. Car engineers rarely liken their industry to Hollywood. And has a car show ever been compared to a film premiere? It takes a chat with an all-American Ford chief, Barb Samardzich, to bring the glamour of the car industry alive.

Blonde and ballsy, and the most powerful woman at Ford in Europe, Ms Samardzich got into engineering when her brother said she would never be out of work if she trained as an engineer.

"My mom said I should also do a secretarial course, in case it didn't work out," she says with a laugh. "Luckily it did. I really don't know what else I would have done."

She shifted to Europe last September as head of new products, which involved a move to Cologne with her husband. It means that Ms Samardzich breezes into Essex on a regular basis, where Ford still makes diesel engines and panels in Dagenham and has a technical centre at Dunton, a little further out on the road to Basildon. This is fertile territory for women who want to make progress in what was always a man's world. The female sewing machinists who made Ford's car seat covers went on strike in 1968 in a protest over equal pay, a drama portrayed in the 2010 movie Made in Dagenham. Things might be better today, but Ms Samardzich believes they can improve.

"When I started out there were very few women," she says. "This has changed. Now we have networks. there is a critical mass. But the real issue is making sure we get to children earlier enough in school to entice them into the industry. If we try too late, when they have already moved away from maths and sciences, then it really is too late."

Her brother was right about her career choices. In her first job as a thermal design engineer at Westinghouse Electric she was one of three women in a staff of 300. She says: "Engineers tend to be analytical. So the attitudes to women were not terrible. Engineers aren't prejudice, they wait for the results. They wait to see whether you are good enough or not rather than judge you at the beginning."

But there was pressure. "I put pressure on myself to be the best. If you are the only woman and you do something wrong or say something stupid they will always remember it as you are the only woman. If it is one of the guys it might not be so well remembered. Many women put this pressure on themselves too and obviously it really is an impossible task."

Her task at Ford, where she moved in 1990, looks tricky, if not impossible. Ford expects to lose £645m in 2012 in Europe, larger than first estimated as the pick-up in car sales in the US hasn't spread across the pond.

Ms Samardzich foresees a big shake-up. "If the industry is in continuing decline there has to be restructuring. The industry can't continue to subsidise and we can't continue to operate with excess capacity."

The answer is to contain costs and try to inject some pizazz into the sector to win over young buyers. Despite the poor outlook for the industry Ms Samardzich's next fix of Hollywood-style glamour comes next month when she reveals new vehicles and technologies in Ford's Go Further event in Amsterdam. But drumming up interest in her motors is almost as important as attracting tomorrow's workforce, she says.

"We have to show the kids role models and show them all the kinds of jobs on offer. It is an incredibly glamorous business. Auto shows are like Hollywood film premieres. We just need to show the kids how great it is."

At home it looks like the sales pitch worked. Ms Samardzich's daughter is working at Ford in the States. When Ms Samardzich was first a mother, things were different in corporate America. "When I had my daughter I came back to work after six weeks. If I hadn't I wouldn't have had a job. But things have changed. With my son I had a nice amount of time off. Ford now has a good policy on this. Of course there is a burden for you to stay on top of things while at home. You must keep up with the latest trends and what is happening in your sector while away. Otherwise you will lose out," she warns.

But what about getting more women to the top of their professions? "So far where I have seen evidence of forced quotas the consequences haven't been as intended," she says. "I think legislation only works when there is literally no other option. The numbers suggest there is still a long way to go.

"In the US women make up about 15 per cent-17 per cent in engineering. This is well behind the legal or medical profession where it is pretty much 50:50. But I don't think we are in a situation where we need legislation."

Back in Europe, Ms Samardzich fits in with the boys, as well as the girls. At Dunton's technical centre, 3,500 skilled designers and engineers are part of a centre of excellence. They are part of the team that makes the 2 million engines that Ford produces each year in the UK. Glamour? If you're a high-tech buff this is the place to be.

Driving ahead: UK car industry on the up

The car industry has been hit by a continuing decline in sales in Europe.

During the first six months of 2012, they fell to their lowest level in nearly 20 years. People, especially the young, have many more options to spend their money on, such as iPads or designer clothes. The crisis in Europe has already forced Peugeot to swing the axe with plans for 8,000 job cuts in France.

However, the prevailing mood is at odds with Britain's car manufacturing industry which has rebounded strongly in the past three years after being turbo-charged by foreign-owned auto giants, such as the big three Japanese producers Toyota, Nissan and Honda.

Car production jumped 5.8 per cent to 1.34 million vehicles in 2011 and output is expected to grow strongly over the next few years after UK-based car makers collectively pledged to invest £5.6bn here in the past 18 months.

This will create about 15,000 new jobs in car manufacturing, design, retail and related products and services, and by 2016 could see UK production exceed the record 2.33 million vehicles set in 1972, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.