Ford Motor Co. is racing to make up for lost time after getting off to a late start in the booming Chinese market. And with demand surging 51% since the beginning of the year, the Detroit maker is rapidly expanding both its product line-up and production capacity in a bid to catch up with key competitors like General Motors and Volkswagen AG.
Ford still has a long way to go. While it was an early participant in other markets in the Asia/Pacific region, it initially steered clear of China – which is expected to see sales of 17 million vehicles this year and as many as 32 million by 2020, according to consensus forecasts. As a result, it lags way behind market leaders in terms of both sales and capacity.
But the president of the Asia/Pacific region, Ford veteran David Schoch notes that the maker is clearly heading in the right direction. It turned a 2012 loss into a $183 million profit for the first half of this year, and says Schoch, “by mid-decade I do expected Asia/Pacific to be a major contributor to Ford’s (total) profits.”
Ford has unleashed a broad product blitz, most recently adding the new Mondeo sedan – the global version of the U.S. Ford Focus. And it is rapidly adding new plants, with two new Chinese assembly plants and three powertrain facilities in the works.
“I believe we’re catching up,” said David Schoch, the maker’s president of Asia/Pacific operations during a roundtable session with reporters at Ford’s suburban Detroit headquarters, though he acknowledged that Ford’s goal of becoming one of the region’s top makers won’t happen overnight. “You have to take the long-term view.”
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Actually, there’s good news in some of the maker’s short-term results. At the beginning of 2012, Ford products accounted for barely 2.5% of the Chinese market. That jumped to 3.2% at the beginning of this year and is expected to reach around 5% when the books close on 2013, Schoch forecast.
If anything, he said, “I’d like to be going faster.” But while “We have the products and we have the demand,” Schoch acknowledged, “We need the capacity.”
And that’s true across the region, he said, not just in China. Ford is addressing that by expanding its assembly line tally in the Asia/Pacific region from 10 in 2011 to 16 by 2015. It will double the number of powertrain facilities from four to eight. Two of the new car plants are going into China, along with three of the four new powertrain operations.
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China is clearly the automotive world’s 800-pound gorilla, its estimated 1.5 million people rapidly embracing their newfound access to automobiles. But there are other potentially lucrative markets, such as India, which Schoch estimates will soon account for as much as 7 million new vehicle sales annually, or about 40% of the volume forecast for the U.S. market.
And where the Asia/Pacific market will go from there is anyone’s guess. The Ford veteran noted that there are about 1 billion consumers in the region who currently have reached the level of income traditionally associated with car buying. Within the decade that is anticipated to double to 2 billion potential customers.
Much of that growth is coming in western China which, until now, has barely felt the economic boom initially centered in Pacific Rim cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Ford, like its competitors is increasing emphasis on so-called Tier 3, 4, 5 and 6 cities – an estimated 200 with more than 1 million population each – as the source of future growth.
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That’s not to say all is rosy. Indian auto sales have taken an unexpected dip this year and the Chinese market, on the whole, has been stuttering in recent months due to concerns about the overall economy. Schoch acknowledged his biggest concern is another oil shock that could be particularly troublesome for China, which imports almost all of its petroleum.
There are other issues in the world’s most populous nation. It has been struggling to cope with worsening urban congestion as well as endemic air pollution. Car sales in a total of a dozen or more cities, including Beijing and Shanghai may soon be governed by lotteries limiting the number of new vehicles that can be sold each month. Chinese regulators have also been pushing for a shift to battery cars, though Schoch cautioned that this effort been met with “no pull” from consumers.
Meanwhile, Ford not only has to face off with traditional competitors like GM and VW but also the estimated 60 or more indigenous Chinese carmakers, such as Great Wall – a rising star, according to Schoch – BYD and Geely. Chinese regulators have, in fact, been less than subtly showing favor to these homegrown brands, albeit to little effect so far.
But Ford is facing pressure to launch a unique local passenger car brand along with its primary Chinese joint venture partner, Chang-An, something it may feel forced to do in the next several years.
Most of the products Ford sells in China are versions of its global line-up, such as the Fusion and the Kuga – the latter known to Americans as the Escape. But the maker is looking at options in the microcar, or B-segment in industry lingo, that could have opportunities across the region, expanding Ford’s reach to more first-time buyers. No decision has yet been made, Schoch stressed.
Earlier this year, Ford CEO Alan Mulally suggested the maker would eventually look to export products from China, possibly even to the U.S. That’s not in the cards, at least for now, Schoch noted. The maker already is struggling to meet Chinese demand and couldn’t spare the capacity.
On the other hand, India is already an export base, supplying products like the little Ford Figo to 37 national markets. That figure, said Schoch, should soon grow to 50 export countries.
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