"I'm Alan. I'm from Ford and I'm ready to take care of your car needs."
These were the first words we heard out of Ford (NYSE: F ) CEO Alan Mulally's mouth as he slipped on a red Ford hat and strode to the podium at Tuesday's Washington Auto Show press conference.
As I sat in the audience, I smirked a little, thinking the line sounded too close to the often-dangerous: "I'm from the government and I'm here to help."
Seven reasons my smirk vanished
Focus on the blue oval: With this mantra, Mulally stressed his company's renewed focus on its three American brands: Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury. This has meant divesting itself of Land Rover, Jaguar, and Aston Martin, reducing its stake in Mazda, and seeking the sale of Volvo. Adding focus and cash is a very good thing.
Quality is finally job one: According to Consumer Reports (my go-to source for car reliability), Ford is "the only Detroit automaker with world-class reliability." Forty-six out of 51 Ford, Mercury, and Lincoln models rate average or better for reliability. In fact, the four-cylinder Ford Fusion and the Mercury Milan rank higher than Honda's (NYSE: HMC ) Accord or Toyota's (NYSE: TM ) Camry. That's an absolutely amazing leap from "Fix or Repair Daily."
Best in class: Ford has the audacious goal of being best in class for every vehicle it makes. That includes factors ranging from quality to value to fuel efficiency. I already showed you the strides in quality. Here's another fun fact: The Ford Fusion hybrid gets 41 miles per gallon in the city, eight better than the Camry hybrid (the Fusion also wins by two mpg on the highway).
Profit: Sure, we can nitpick the reasons (starting with the Cash for Clunkers boost), but Ford actually made a profit in 2009.
Bankruptcy ain't such an advantage: Mulally was asked whether Ford is at a disadvantage vs. GM and Chrysler, which used bankruptcy filings to lessen their debt obligations. He acknowledged that Ford has a ton of debt to pay back (as well as billions to settle up health care for retired employees), but said that overall, staying out of bankruptcy is a net good.
Looking at another industry, I tend to agree that the strong get stronger. Would you rather be Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC ) and JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM ) right now or Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) and Citigroup (NYSE: C ) ?
Market share: As proof of the strong getting stronger, Mulally mentioned that Ford has gained market share in 14 out of the last 15 months. Lead, follow, or get out of the way, eh?
Didn't take money: Ford did all this without direct government assistance. My conclusion is that they had an ace (Mulally) up their sleeve.
One reason for caution
Ford isn't as cheap as its risk warrants. Its market capitalization of $36 billion is roughly half of when it last peaked in the 1999 bubble times. Half-off is usually a good thing, but when it's off of a bubble price on a capital-intensive turnaround company in an increasingly globally competitive market, I don't necessarily salivate.
It's been a great 600+% ride for folks who bought at last year's bottom, but buying Ford at today's prices seems a bit late to the party. My friends at our Motley Fool Stock Advisor service may disagree. They recommended the stock back in November. Of course, the price I'm looking at now is up more than 25% from where Ford stock sat when they recommended it.
From a consumer standpoint, I agree with my fellow Honda devotee Matt Argersinger: I will definitely take a look at Ford when I'm looking for my next car.
From an investing standpoint, I'm not quite a Taurus (get it, a Ford bull?), but as long as Mulally is running the assembly line, I'll be watching, hoping for a dip in the road that leads to a cheaper buy-in price.
What are your thoughts on Ford? Good investment? Bad investment? Let's discuss in the comments section below.