Global retreat shrinks GM footprint

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

Two years ago, General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra trumpeted a $1 billion investment in India, expected to become the world’s third-largest automotive market.

Now, GM is leaving.

The automaker’s decision to stop selling vehicles in India — and to sell its South Africa operations to Isuzu Motors Ltd. — are the latest moves by the company to concentrate on profitable sectors that benefit the bottom line. The plans announced Thursday follow several similar decisions in recent years under Barra’s watch: GM is decisively exiting markets it sees as unprofitable — including its money-losing European operations, which GM plans to sell by the end of the year to French automaker PSA Group.

In 2015, Barra met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India. She said then that Chevrolet was “committed to India for the long term.” GM was planning to double its investment there to produce 10 new Chevrolets over five years and add 12,000 jobs.

But by last summer, GM had put the investment on hold as it re-evaluated the Indian market and looked for cash to bankroll development of self-driving cars and services like car-sharing. The announcement Thursday that it would stop selling cars altogether in India represents a notable about-face for the automaker.

The new GM is scrutinizing markets on a case-by-case basis. If it doesn’t see a shot at being a dominant player with sustained and long-term profitability, it is pulling out. The company is using money that otherwise would be lost to invest in high-margin and profitable ventures such as pickups in North America, expansion in China and to grow luxury brand Cadillac.

The company also is pouring money into mobility as a service through its Maven car-sharing brand and to develop self-driving vehicles — areas seen by GM as highly profitable in the long term.

“They’re not focused on market share anymore. They’re focused on profit,” said Rebecca Lindland, executive analyst for Kelley Blue Book. “This is not about world dominance. This is about balance-sheet dominance.”

GM’s International Operations, aside from China, have been a drag on the company’s earnings for several years.

In the past few years, GM has opted to pull its Chevrolet brand largely from Europe; leave Russia; cease manufacturing in Indonesia and Australia; and restructure in Thailand. Just last month, GM said it would cease operations in Venezuela after government authorities seized its lone factory there.

GM said the retreats from India and Africa will save it $100 million annually. The company will take special charges of about $500 million in the second quarter for the actions.

Hundreds affected

The automaker will continue to build vehicles at its plant in Talegaon, India. But they are intended for export-only to Mexico and Central and South America. It stopped production at its Halol Assembly Plant in India last month. A technical center in India that does engineering and design is unaffected by the announcement.

“These actions will further allow us to focus our resources on winning in the markets where we have strong franchises and see greater opportunity,” GM President Dan Ammann said in a statement Thursday.

GM International Operations President Stefan Jacoby said in a statement that exports from India have tripled over the past year, and that they will remain the focus. “We determined that the increased investment required for an extensive and flexible product portfolio would not deliver a leadership position or long-term profitability in the domestic market,” he said.

GM sold about 25,000 vehicles in India last year, representing less than 1 percent share of the Indian market.

The changes in India will affect about 400 employees, or 8 percent of GM’s workforce there, a company spokesman said.

GM said Isuzu will buy GM’s Struandale plant in Port Elizabeth, South Africa; GM’s 30 percent share in the Isuzu Truck South Africa joint venture; and a GM distribution center. Isuzu also will assume control of a parts distribution center in the country. GM has had a presence in the region since 1913 and began making vehicles there in 1926. Last year, it sold just over 20,000 vehicles in the region.

In February, Isuzu agreed to buy GM’s 57.7 percent stake in GM East Africa.

Finding ‘right’ markets

Barra said the carmaker is transforming its business as the industry changes, and she indicated the company now feels it is in the right regions for profitable returns.

“We are committed to deploying capital to higher-return initiatives that will enable us to lead in our core business and in the future of personal mobility,” she said Thursday in a statement. “Globally, we are now in the right markets to drive profitability, strengthen our business performance and capitalize on growth opportunities for the long term.”

Buckingham Research Group, in a note to investors Thursday, said cost-cutting announcements like GM’s — and Ford Motor Co.’s plan announced this week to offer buyouts to 1,400 salaried employees in North America and Asia — “have historically signaled management concerns about profits and cash flow coming under pressure.”

GM shares, which are trading near the 2010 initial public offering price of $33 a share, closed up 0.2 percent Thursday to $32.42.

Chief Financial Officer Chuck Stevens had hinted last month in a call with analysts and investors that more changes were coming.

GM’s International Operations have been under a microscope for restructuring and include nearly 100 emerging and mature markets.

“If we can’t find a path to a sustained long-term return in markets, we will take decisive action,” he said.