The auto industry crisis has changed the relationship between carmakers and Europe's big dealer groups with retailers asserting more independence from manufacturers, a market research company said.
As customers hit by the economic crisis shunned showrooms, beleaguered dealer groups accelerated efforts to reduce their reliance on new-car sales by investing more in providing financial services, selling used cars or turning to new products such as electric vehicles and Chinese cars, said Emmanuel Labi, research manager at AutoBiz.
Labi said many dealers refused to accept cars from manufacturers they knew they couldn't sell and resisted automaker pressure to invest more in improving the appearance of their showrooms.
"In the past, automakers told dealers they had to take a quota of new cars and invest in high showroom standards if they wanted to sell the automaker's brand or brands. During the crisis many dealers just said, 'No,' " Labi told Automotive News Europe. "One dealer told me, 'Things will never be the same in our relationship with manufacturers after 2009.' "
Adding to dealers' troubles is a growing trend by customers to research and buy cars on the Internet. "In Germany, the UK and across Europe showrooms are empty. The Internet is playing a greater role in new-car sales," Labi said.
Betting on electric cars
Two big European groups, Berge in Spain and Emil Frey in Switzerland, are betting on electric cars to offset declining sales of traditional vehicles.
Emil Frey, Europe's second-biggest dealer group by new-car sales, will be the European importer for Fisker Automotive, of Irvine, California, starting with Fisker's Karma plug-in hybrid sports car.
Berge, Spain's largest dealer group, will distribute Chinese carmaker BYD's electric and hybrid cars in Spain. Berge and BYD are also studying cooperating in setting up recharging stations for electric vehicles.
Hit hard by the collapse the Russian car market, Rolf Group, the country's largest dealer group, plans to open 500 auto repair centers in Russia with the Kwik-Fit repair group of the UK.
The industry crisis hit new-car sales and revenues of most of Europe's big dealers groups, according to Automotive News Europe 2010 Guide to Europe's Biggest Dealers, published in association with Paris-based AutoBiz. (For more, click on 2010 Guide to Europe's Biggest Dealer Groups, above)
Dealers that bucked the trend and boosted sales included Arnold Clark and Lookers of the UK, where dealer groups started to recover from the recession more quickly than their peers on the Continent.
Porsche Holding is Europe's No. 1 dealer -- for now
Europe's top dealer groups are led by Porsche Holding, the Salzburg, Austria-based group founded in 1947 by Louise Piëch, daughter of automotive pioneer Ferdinand Porsche, and her brother Ferry Porsche. In 2009, the group boosted revenues to 13.65 billion euros (about $17.29 billion) from 12.80 billion euros the year before and slightly increased new-car sales to 473,421 from 470,421.
But the group, which has expanded aggressively in central and eastern Europe and now operates in 18 European countries along with China, likely will not appear on the list in the future because it will become part of Volkswagen AG.
The Porsche and Piëch families will sell the dealership business to Volkswagen AG as part of an agreement to integrate Porsche into VW. The business was assigned an enterprise value of 3.55 billion euros in November, when VW and Porsche signed a merger agreement that envisages VW acquiring the dealer group by December 31, 2013.