CMO to CEO: Ford Australia's chief shares his lessons in reinvention

Former marketing and brand leader and now chief of the local automotive business talks through career milestones and how this is helping him steer through the latest consumer challenges

Andrew Birkic
Andrew Birkic

Andrew Birkic has no trouble recalling the day of his first interview for a role with the Ford Motor Company of Australia.

“I think I got there an hour early,” Birkic tells CMO. “I drove out to Broadmeadows and sat in my car, got my notes out and read. And I can still remember the day I started, 27 years go, and it really put a smile on my face.”

Since that time, Birkic has held a slew of different roles in marketing, sales, and management with the iconic car marker, both in Australia and internationally, starting with his first as a marketing analyst on the Ford Falcon line. Through each role he has learned the essential skills needed to run a business in a fast-changing industry – skills he is putting to good use now, heading up a team of 2500 automotive experts as Ford’s president and CEO for Australia and New Zealand.

“Those jobs teach you the fundamentals of the business, and you have an appreciation of how the pieces come together,” Birkic says. “That is what Ford does – it teaches you skills, and it builds your ‘wheelbase’, to use an automotive term.

“And it allows you to transition to a general management focus because you have built this repertoire of skills and leadership behaviours.”

Building a marketing impression

While Birkic originally trained in finance, it was the chance to work with such a well-regarded brand that saw him first apply for a sales and marketing role. Many of his later roles were also in marketing, including his most recent as the global chief product marketer for Ford’s Ranger and Everest lines. During that time, he travelled the world to see how customers were using the vehicles, including visiting with soybean farmers in Brazil.

“There is no substitute for getting dirt under the fingernails and getting out there and seeing how the customers use the vehicles, and talking to the dealers,” Birkic says. “It was a global role. I was a conduit between the market and the engineers – I was the voice of the customer.”

Another of his favourite roles was as Ford’s zone manager for Brisbane, where he worked closely with the local dealers.

“That was my favourite job, because you are a bit of your own boss,” Birkic says. “The dealers are amazing, and your staff are amazing – they are the ones at the coal face, and you learn a lot from them about how they work in communities and how they work with customers. It was a really important piece of my career.”

Working at Ford has also taught Birkic a lot about branding, and about what brand custodianship means for a company whose most loyal fans hold a deep connection to the brand.

“They are the ones that have tattoos and belt buckles, and that is an amazing position that we have,” Birkic says. “And we have some iconic vehicles, whether it is the Mustang or F-Series in the US, and now the new [Mustang] Mach-E.

“Cars are a very emotive brand, so from a marketer’s perspective that is a good thing. And everyone has a story - about their first car and last car, which brands they love, what do you drive, what would you like to drive. They are good stories.”

The role has not been without its challenges, however. While Birkic was stationed overseas at when Ford Australia closed local manufacturing, the reverberations ran deep.

“It is important to certain consumers and not as important to others,” Birkic says. “What consumers are looking for is great value and exciting products, and practicality. They are really important attributes that we can’t lose sight of, and ultimately the consumers decide because they are the ones investing in the product.”

Change manager

Now he finds himself steering the organisation through a series of consumer-driven changes, from the rise in interest in electric vehicles to changing perspectives on car ownership. That, in turn, is leading Birkic to pose some fundamental questions within the business.

“How do we make your life easy?” Birkic asks. “I don’t think it [the future] will be about ‘pure vehicle’. It will be data and analytics. It will be how easily can I get my vehicle serviced. It will be so much more than ‘how much do I love the car’.

“Consumer expectations are very high for their product and service needs, and it is also a pretty cluttered market in terms of getting to the consumer. We work with our agency partners to ensure that we provide relevant and meaningful information that also has a little bit of fun and cut through and captures the eye.”

Having such a varied career history provides Birkic with the different perspectives he needs to take on these emerging challenges. He believes this kind of career trajectory would be well suited to any marketer with general management ambitions.

“Ultimately, you’ve got to be prepared to take some opportunities, and ask questions,” Birkic says. “You need to be prepared to make some mistakes. That is part of the process.

“Stretching myself and taking some opportunities along the way has been really beneficial. I like to keep reinventing myself. It is important you don’t become static and that you look around at other industries and look at new information, and that will help you be a better marketer or general manger.”

That philosophy has also seen Birkic take on roles he says may not have been the perfect fit for him at the time, but which have enabled him to grow.

“I think of myself as really honoured and privileged to hold this position,” Birkic says. “That’s the way these things sometimes turn out. it is an amazing company, it has a great culture, and I love what we do and the fact we make things and bring a smile to people’s faces.”

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