HAMBURG (Bloomberg) -- Seat, Volkswagen AG's most unprofitable unit, aims to stem losses within five years and halt a flight of customers to rivals by expanding its model range and growing outside its Spanish home market.
“This is the last attempt for Seat as a brand, it would not be sensible to view things differently,” CEO James Muir said Wednesday in Hamburg. “If one would want to get rid of Seat, one would have to give the other party money to take it.”
VW named Muir, Mazda Motor Corp.'s former European chief, as Seat CEO last September after predecessor Erich Schmitt failed in his three-year effort to turn around the automaker. Concern about Spain's economy as a result of Greece's fiscal crisis may further hamper efforts to boost revenue from the unit.
Martorell, Spain,-based Seat's first-quarter operating loss of 110 million euros ($139 million) was more than double VW's two other unprofitable units, Bentley and commercial vehicles. Without a turnaround, Seat may endanger the German automaker's plan to become the largest automaker by 2018, analysts say.
“It will be difficult to turn Seat around,” said Marc- Rene Tonn, an analyst at M.M. Warburg in Hamburg. “Most of their sales stem from southern Europe where the crisis has hit small-car makers particularly hard.”
Falling new-car sales
Deliveries of Seat vehicles such as the Ibiza compact and Alhambra minivan fell 8.5 percent to 337,000 units last year. Spanish car sales slumped 21 percent in 2009, according to the Brussels-based European automakers association ACEA.
Spain's once-booming economy started contracting in the second quarter of 2008 and has taken six months longer than the 16-nation euro area as a whole to return to growth as households pay down debt. First-quarter economic expansion was 0.1 percent. Spain has the eurozone's highest jobless rate at 20.1 percent.
Standard & Poor's cut the country's credit rating on April 28, saying the government was underestimating its fiscal woes and overestimating growth prospects. Prime Minister Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said yesterday he will cut public wages this year amid pressure to rein in Spain's budget deficit.
“Seat is the undisputed trouble-spot in VW's brand portfolio,” said Stefan Bratzel, director of the Center of Automotive at the University of Applied Sciences in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany. “Solving the problems there may take years and a clear-cut remedy isn't in sight.”
Seat, which gets 56 percent of its sales from the Ibiza model, must expand its range of offerings for models such as the Leon compact and reduce its reliance on Spain, Muir told journalists during a roundtable discussion.
Fixing Seat will be key to plans by VW, which also makes Skoda, Audi and the namesake VW brand cars, to surpass Toyota Motor Corp. in profitability and deliveries in 2018.
As part of that target, Muir yesterday reiterated VW's goal of more than doubling Seat's sales to 800,000 vehicles. Wolfsburg-based VW posted record sales last year of 6.3 million units.
“It seems to me that VW hasn't fully committed itself yet to the brand image of Seat,” said Mike Tyndall, an automotive analyst at Nomura Securities in London. “At some point they wanted Seat to be the sporty brand within the VW family, but some of the model decisions don't add up.”
VW Chief Financial Officer Hans Dieter Poetsch said March 11 that a “comprehensive program” of cost cuts was under way to return Seat to profit after the unit's operating loss in 2009 quadrupled to 339 million euros. The goal is to trim fixed outlays by raising capacity utilization, he said.
Martorell plant gets Audi SUV
To that end, VW will build Audi's new Q3 compact SUV at Seat's main plant in Martorell, near Barcelona, beginning next year, with a goal of making 80,000 vehicles a year. The factory, which can produce 500,0000 vehicles per year, has a capacity utilization of 60 percent currently, Muir said, adding that he needs to reach 90 percent to hit the breakeven point.
“Our clear focus over the next three years will be to improve utilization,” Muir said. “One cannot solely rely on cost reductions to make Seat profitable.”
Muir has made his own missteps since taking over Seat, running into resistance from the German carmaker's labor leaders after announcing plans to lay off about 300 workers. He later backed away from that plan after works council chief Bernd Osterloh criticized his efforts, saying cost reductions weren't enough to save Seat. VW has owned Seat since 1986.
Worker representatives hold half the seats on VW's supervisory board and have played a crucial role in the past in ousting executives that tried to cut jobs, including former VW CEO Bernd Pischetsrieder.
“I'm coming from outside the company straight into the CEO position,” Muir said. “That's a sign that there is a certain frustration about Seat at VW.”