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UPDATE 2-Bill Ford not planning for big sales gain in 2010
* Ford Motor chair says production will rise if necessary
* Bill Ford meets with Obama at White House
* Ford says efficiency strategy 'the right one' (Adds Obama meeting, details of efficiency plan)
By John Crawley
WASHINGTON, Dec 14 (Reuters) - Ford Motor Co (F.N) is not planning for a big sales gain in 2010 but will likely boost vehicle production if business is better than expected, the company's chairman said on Monday.
Bill Ford, who met President Barack Obama earlier at the White House, told reporters at the Commerce Department that a careful strategy has served Ford well this year, a tumultuous one for the industry.
"We're not planning for a huge pickup next year. If we get one, great, we'll ride it," Ford said.
"We're planning conservatively. Just as we did this year, we've kept our inventories low. If things start to pop for the better, we'll adjust our production upward and go that way," he said.
The latest figures showed that Ford U.S. sales were flat in November compared to a year ago with plans to build 58 percent more vehicles in North America in the first quarter. General Motors sales fell 2 percent and Chrysler sales, 25 percent by comparison.
The economy, Ford said, was not great and he expressed concern about joblessness.
"As long as unemployment stays high, it's hard to feel good about the economy," Ford said after meeting with Commerce Secretary Gary Locke on initiatives that business and government should take to revitalize the economy.
Ford talked with Obama in the Oval Office, calling the meeting a courtesy visit during which Ford complimented him on his handling of the industry's restructuring this year.
"The way he stepped in with GM (General Motors Co) and Chrysler and preventing the collapse of the supply base was something they did swiftly and forcefully and it worked," Ford said.
The government loaned GM and Chrysler billions and facilitated their bankruptcies. Ford Motor did not request a federal bailout.
Bill Ford said he and Obama did not discuss industry prospects or the government's environmental initiatives, which include plans to sharply increase auto fuel efficiency.
Pummeled financially this year by recession and a collapsing light truck market, Ford Motor and other U.S. rivals are betting their revival and future viability on smaller car production.
They aim to lure consumers into more efficient vehicles that are cheaper to operate. For instance, Ford is set to roll out the Fiesta small car in the United States by summer and a redesigned Focus compact later in 2010.
Although fuel prices remain relatively low, Bill Ford said the vehicle strategy remains "the right one" so long as Ford cars are attractive to consumers.
"To achieve fuel efficiency, we're not giving up 'fun to drive.' If we were, then I'd be worried about it," Ford said of the potential impact of lower gasoline prices on Ford's business.
U.S. retail gasoline prices fell to the lowest level in eight weeks, the Energy Department said on Monday. Regular unleaded gasoline stood at an average $2.60 per gallon.
Bill Ford is a strong proponent of electric vehicles, urging the industry to more more aggressively in that direction. (Reporting by John Crawley; Additional reporting by Tom Doggett; Editing by Phil Berlowitz and Carol Bishopric)
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