Interview with Ram President and CEO Fred Diaz

A few weeks ago, Ram president and CEO Fred Diaz stood in front of the 2014 Toyota Tundra and quietly stared. Toyota had revealed the new Tundra a few hours earlier, during the opening press conference at the 2013 Chicago Auto Show.  This was the first time Diaz, who had unveiled the Ram Promaster utility van that same day, had the chance to size up some of his pickup competition.

Diaz stood back and took mental notes on the truck’s design and presence as it spun quietly on the small display stage. I coaxed him onto the platform so he could get a look at the interior before we were told no one was allowed on the platform. As we stepped down, Diaz noted that it’s always good to see what everyone else is doing.

“You don’t want to underestimate anyone,” Diaz said.

But Diaz didn’t look too worried. He shouldn’t be: The Tundra may be better, but it’s not better than the Ram 1500, the full-size pickup was named the 2013 Motor Trend Truck of the Year.

But that was last year’s honor. This year, Diaz said he is focusing on further developing the Ram brand, especially in the commercial market.

Only a few minutes before taking a look at the Tundra, Diaz was sitting in a makeshift interview room fielding questions. It had been a long day and the heavy snow outside had many people rushing to the airport in hopes of an earlier flight.  Diaz, who also had a flight to catch, never looked rushed. His cool demeanor and sharp smile make this Texas native as smooth as sweet tea on a summer day.  There’s a reason he once headed national sales during his 23-year career at Chrysler.

“Getting the Promaster here has been very important to Ram,” Diaz said. “Now we have a complete commercial lineup.”

That can only help Ram, which continues to outpace industry standards in pickup sales and commercial sales gains. In 2012, Ram sales nearly topped 300,000 units and sales were up 19.9 percent, according to AutoData Corp. It’s still a distant third to the Ford F-Series and GM’s Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra, but it’s gaining ground.

In 2007 and 2008, Ram added its chassis cab and heavy-duty models, which many commercial customers prefer. Then, for the 2009 model year, the Ram 1500 shed its Dodge moniker and added a coil-spring rear suspension and a whole new look. Right after that, Diaz took the reins of Ram and has pushed the brand to new heights.

Now, Diaz said that the tea leaves every auto executive tries to read point toward growing commercial sales. During a slow economic recovery, truck sales often ebb and flow with economic indicators such as housing starts.  Diaz said he will continue to focus on growing commercial customers, a group that can mean a company ordering hundreds of vehicles or a self-employed contractor needing just one.

With the Promaster, which comes from Fiat’s Ducato, added to the lineup, Diaz believes he can meet almost any business’ needs.

“The Ram lineup competes with anyone,” Diaz said. “We have gas, CNG, diesel powertrains, and a host of upfitters that can create a very personalized vehicle. These can be mobile workshops.”

Ram is also studying whether to add more upfitting capability by allowing a customer to order a fully outfitted Promaster and have it delivered to the dealership. It may also employ a company to create custom wraps for vehicles so owners can use their trucks as mobile billboards.

“They want one-stop shopping,” Diaz said, adding that Ram dealerships are evolving to provide businesses with a reliable network of services, such as Next Bay services that promise a business truck owner if something happens to their vehicle, it will be put in the next open repair bay.

In fact, Diaz even told me how small business customers sales are sometime referred to as “fleetail” because they may be fleet sales but they are just as good as retail sales, which generally bring in bigger profits.

Some of the ideas Ram may chase are not new, as Ford has employed similar efforts for its Transit Connect utility truck and will use them again with its larger Transit. GM will launch a new Silverado and Sierra later this year. And then there’s the Tundra spinning on a stand in Chicago.

But Ford, GM, and Toyota truck dealers may want to stop by their local auto show and check out the Ram display. It’s getting bigger, and it’s not something anyone should underestimate.