Renault CEO says struggling carmaker has come 'back from hell'

Tara Patel

Renault's chief declared the automaker is firmly on the comeback trail after a record loss, forecasting stable profitability despite the global chip shortage and rising raw material prices.

The carmaker has "abandoned the approach of only looking for sheer growth," Chief Executive Officer Luca de Meo said in a Bloomberg TV interview. "We are actually back from hell with this first semester."

A Renault Zoe electric automobile outside a Renault showroom in Paris on June 9, 2021.

Renault swung to net income of 368 million euros ($437 million) during the first half, from a 7.4 billion-euro loss a year ago. Renault now expects shortages in semiconductors to cost the company about 200,000 vehicles this year, double a previous estimate.

French carmaker Renault's chief executive Luca de Meo presents the Megane eVision on October 15, 2020 in Meudon, near Paris.

Giving financial guidance for the first time in 2021, the company expects full-year operating margin to be roughly in line with the 2.8% achieved in the first half. That's just short of its 3% target for 2023, although well below competitors.

"I think the worst is behind us," the CEO told analysts. "The auto business operating margin is back in the black so we're making money on our core business again."

Renault reversed an initial advance to decline 2.2% at 11:40 a.m. in Paris trading. The stock is down about 9% since the start of the year and trails far behind gains in the Stoxx Europe 600 Automobiles & Parts index.

Renault has lagged rivals Volkswagen and Stellantis because of its reliance on the European market, which has recovered more slowly than China or the U.S. from the initial pandemic onslaught. The manufacturer's lineup of lower-returning mass-market vehicles also offers fewer options compared to competitors that have prioritized making more lucrative models with what chips they have available.

Just over a year after de Meo took the helm, he told Bloomberg on Friday the automaker's absence from the Chinese market is "unacceptable" and its global footprint should be broadened.

Automotive operational free cash flow was close to break-even at negative 70 million euros. Japanese partner Nissan contributed 100 million euros to Renault's bottom line after being responsible for much of the French carmaker's record loss last year.

Higher prices for raw materials like steel are expected to hit the carmaker much harder in the second half, according to deputy CEO Clotilde Delbos. The impact could be as high as 600 million euros, she said.

Renault sold 1.42 million vehicles worldwide in the first half, 19% more than last year but still down almost a quarter from the same period in 2019.

Inventories at the end of the latest quarter stood at 427,000 vehicles compared with 486,000 at the end of last year. Many carmakers have benefited from surging prices after the chip shortage reduced the number of cars on dealer lots.

The pandemic has added to pressures on Renault stemming from overcapacity in its factories and problems at Nissan. Renault took a 5 billion-euro French state-backed loan last year and earlier this year sold its stake in Daimler for 1.14 billion euros to safeguard its credit ratings.

De Meo unveiled a turnaround plan in January that underwhelmed investors. The carmaker is targeting an operating margin of at least 5% by mid-decade compared with a 4.8% return in 2019. Stellantis, formed from the merger of Renault arch rival PSA Group and Fiat Chrysler, wants to generate a double-digit adjusted operating income margin by around 2026.

Renault is working to eliminate about 14,600 jobs worldwide and lower production capacity by almost a fifth in a bid to cut costs by more than 2 billion euros.

The carmaker has cut 1.8 billion euros of costs and said it now expects to reach a 2 billion-euro goal by year-end, ahead of schedule.