PARIS - French supplier Sommer Allibert SA's cockpit module business is booming thanks to major new contracts from Renault.
The company will be a key supplier to Renault's Megane replacement, code named W84 and scheduled for launch in 2002.
'We will be completely in charge of the new Megane's cockpit - and that includes its design,' said Jean-Michel Elter, Sommer Allibert's executive vice president for automotive operations.
Sommer Allibert will also provide the dashboards and door panels for the Laguna, Safrane and Espace replacements. All will be based on the same platform and built in Renault's Sandouville plant, near Le Havre. Sommer Allibert will also supply bumpers for the Espace.
The new Laguna goes on sale next year, and the Safrane and Espace successors will appear in 2001.
But Sommer Allibert is looking beyond its domestic market. Elter said growth is already being fueled by major contracts from Volkswagen. The company supplies dashboards and door panels to the Golf and New Beetle.
Now Elter has made the USA a top priority.
'It's a major concern,' he said. 'We must be present in the US market. North America currently accounts for 6 percent of our sales. We want to increase that to 20 percent within two years.'
Sommer Allibert has linked up with Meritor Automotive Inc. of the USA to develop door panels. Meritor is a specialist in door mechanisms. The first joint project is under way for Ford of Europe.
Last year Sommer Allibert opened a US technical and business center in Detroit. It currently has 50 employees and that number is expected to grow in the near future.
However, Sommer Allibert's US ambitions recently suffered a setback. It shut its plant in Kansas City, Kansas, set up five years ago to supply bumpers to General Motors.
Sommer Allibert Chairman Marc Assa said the factory lost between $20 million-$30 million a year during the past three financial years. 'We experienced technical and pricing problems,' he said. The plant has just been sold to US supplier American Bumpers.
In North America, Sommer Allibert's automotive business now includes interior-parts operations in Fountain Inn, South Carolina, and Puebla, Mexico.
The company is also targeting the Japanese market.
'We are ready to go to Japan,' said Elter. 'We are going to set up a development center near Tokyo. We are hoping to do business with Nissan.'
Sommer Allibert has links with Japanese plastic maker Inoac, which supplies Toyota and Nissan.
'Inoac is our partner in our US operation in Fountain Inn. We know them well,' said Elter. 'I'm sure Inoac would allow Sommer Allibert to use some of its Japanese facilities.'
The company's automotive division, Sommer Allibert Industries (SAI), had sales of FF12.5 billion (euro 1.9 billion) last year. Cockpits and dashboards made up 36 percent of that total, followed by door panels (30 percent), carpets and interior trim (24 percent) and bumpers (10 percent).
In the first half of this year SAI reported sales of FF6.7 billion -6.8 percent more than January-June 1998.
For the whole year, 'we are expecting at least a 6 percent increase in sales,' said Assa.
Sommer Allibert Siemens (SAS), a joint venture with Germany's Siemens AG, provides the focal point for the company's cockpit module business.
'SAS will have sales of FF1 billion this year,' said Elter. 'That will rise to FF2.5 billion next year. We are targeting sales of FF7 billion by 2003.'