Ford beating GM in race to Europe turnaround
DETROIT (Bloomberg) -- Ford Motor Co. will post fourth-quarter results on Tuesday with the figures likely to show the lowest operating profit of the year. But those figures mask optimism coming from an unlikely place: Europe.
Using its turnaround in the United States as a road map, Ford is moving more briskly to recover in Europe than its competitors. While Ford will report a loss of more than $1.5 billion (1.1 billion euros) for the full year in Europe and has forecast a similar result for 2013, Chief Financial Officer Bob Shanks said in an interview this month at the Detroit auto show that those losses will begin to disappear in about two years.
Ford will be about a year ahead of General Motors Co. in efforts to revamp operations in the region, said Peter Nesvold, a Jefferies Group Inc. analyst. The carmaker's board has signaled increased conviction in the company's European restructuring plan by doubling the quarterly dividend earlier this month, he said. "In the case of Ford, ultimately, this is the team that without external help was able to accomplish in North America what almost nobody thought was going to be possible," Nesvold said in an interview. "The problems aren't identical in Europe, but they are similar."
Ford's fourth-quarter revenue probably slipped 4.4 percent to $33.1 billion, the average of 11 estimates compiled by Bloomberg, from $34.6 billion a year earlier. The average of 19 estimates is for 26 cents of operating profit per share, up from 20 cents a year earlier.
"We've had a wonderful nine months, in terms of profitability, margin and generating very positive operating cash flow," said CFO Shanks. "I think the path that we've been on will continue."
CEO Alan Mulally, 67, revived Ford after arriving in 2006 from Boeing Co. by using $23.4 billion that the company borrowed late that year to overhaul its lineup with fuel-efficient models such as the Focus and Fiesta. Those efforts were preceded by plans to restructure the company's North American operations beginning in October 2005, Shanks said. "If we had not started then, if we had waited until the overall economic crisis was evident, we would not have been ready for it," he said. "That's another interesting learning on Europe -- there was no evidence from the outside when people looked at what we were doing that we were making any progress."
The automaker aims to increase its product offerings in the region by introducing its Mustang sports car in Europe soon and is tripling its sport-utility vehicle offerings in the continent, Mulally said in September. The automaker is also adding the subcompact EcoSport SUV, just 4000mm (157 inches) long, and the Edge midsized utility to its European lineup, which already includes the Kuga compact, known in the United States as the Escape.
"They basically turn over their entire product lineup over the next 12 to 18 months," Nesvold said of Ford's vehicle offerings in the region. "That gives them an opportunity to improve their pricing in Europe, and then in 2014 and 2015 they will have addressed their cost and capacity issues."
Ford restarted production at its factory in Genk, Belgium, last week after a blockade by workers over plans to shut the site ended. The company hadn't shipped a vehicle from the plant since it said the factory will shut for good in 2014. A factory in Southampton, England, that makes chassis cabs for the Transit van and a stamping plant in Dagenham, on the outskirts of London, will close this year. In total, Ford plans to cut 6,200 jobs, or 13 percent of its workforce in an effort to break even in the region by mid-decade.
"We think we can be profitable, with the restructuring actions that we've taken and all the new products that we're introducing, by mid-decade," Mulally said this month in a speech at the Automotive News World Congress event in Detroit. "When you look at some of the people that are not taking action, it might be a little bit longer."
Rival GM told workers at its German unit Opel last week that it may shutter a factory in that country as soon as the end of 2014. The automaker has racked up $17.3 billion in losses in Europe since 1999 and has said it plans to break even there by mid-decade.
GM's plans haven't been quite as well received by investors as Ford's. Since Oct. 30, the day before GM said it would cut costs by $500 million a year starting this year, it has gained 25 percent. While that's far better than the S&P's 6.4 percent gain, it trails Ford's 32 percent rise.
"We are not focused on what Ford is doing, but are keenly focused on driving to break-even by the middle of the decade with great products and an improved cost structure," said Randy Arickx, a GM spokesman.
Fiat, the majority owner of Chrysler Group LLC, is relying on the U.S. unit to offset losses at Fiat's mass-market brands in Europe. Sergio Marchionne, CEO of both companies, is working to improve results in the region before merging the two automakers by 2015.
New-car demand in Europe fell 7.8 percent last year to 12.5 million vehicle registrations, the lowest in 19 years, the European Automobile Manufacturers' Association, or ACEA, said this month. Ford's registrations plunged 13 percent to 939,409, according to the Brussels-based trade group.
The story is quite the opposite in North America. Record profits there buttressed Ford's bottom line in the first nine months of last year. The automaker earned $6.47 billion before taxes in the region in 2012's first nine months, more than it made there for all of 2011. North America had an operating profit margin of 11.2 percent during the period in an industry where a 5 percent margin is respectable. Ford has said it wants to achieve profit margins of 8 percent to 10 percent in North America over the long term. The North American profits are underwriting the European restructuring.
Ford likes its odds in Europe, given its experience in North America. "Even with a no-change bottom line in Europe in '13 versus '12, we're well on our way in terms of a transformation that will get that part of the business back on track," Ford's Shanks said. "We didn't fix North America in six months. It took years. The same thing will happen in Europe."Contact Automotive News