Howes: Third time a charm for GM’s Opel, headed to PSA

Daniel Howes

Who says there aren’t third chances in the global auto industry?

Germany’s Opel Group GmbH, under American ownership since 1929, is preparing to become a part of France’s PSA Groupe SA. That’s arguably more positive than negative for General Motors Co.’s longtime ward, founded by Adam Opel in 1862 to make sewing machines and then bicycles before turning to cars.

After nearly a generation struggling for profits and market share in Europe, Opel and its sister brand in the United Kingdom, Vauxhall, have a chance to join a team that is gaining share, boosting profitability and amassing scale in the cutthroat European market.

“GM wants to sell us to PSA, PSA wants to buy us and we are ready to go,” Wolfgang Schäfer-Klug, chairman of Opel’s General Works Council and deputy chairman of its governing supervisory board, said in an interview with The Detroit News. “The feeling was, ‘Let’s go, let’s move on.’ In the end, break-even is not enough. You have to make a profit.”

Yes, you do. And try as they might, GM and Opel leaders on both sides of the Atlantic spent a lot of years, argued a lot of contentious points and burned a lot of frequent-flier miles trying to fashion a contender from GM’s global parts bin, as well as one-time partners PSA and Fiat SpA.

A month ago, GM CEO Mary Barra surrendered in a way her predecessors would barely recognize. No half measure, this. The automaker that spent a good chunk of the industry’s first century as the world’s largest plans to exit a market of more than 300 million people, stretching from the west coast of France to the east coast of Russia.

More than metal and vehicle architecture, more than marketing and brand perception, more than nearly 20 years of continual restructuring and recurring carping in the German press, the cold, hard numbers tell the story.

Over 17 consecutive years between 2000 and 2016, the company said when it announced its deal with PSA earlier this month, GM lost a total of $22.5 billion in Europe. Its market share slipped nearly 35 percent to 5.7 percent, making it roughly 75 percent smaller across Europe than arch-rival Volkswagen AG.

To put that into perspective: In 1972, according to Opel’s official history, the automaker controlled 20.4 percent of the German market, making the GM-owned unit the country’s market leader. As recently as 2000, Opel claimed 8.7 percent of the European market, three points higher than today.

Stemming losses enough to hold a middling market position that may or may not break even in any given year is hardly the stuff of an encouraging investment thesis. Barra and President Dan Ammann, a former Wall Street banker, appear to understand this with far more clarity than their predecessors.

They can also read charts. Last August, the German broadcaster Deustche Welle cited a study from the University of Duisburg-Essen’s Center for Automotive Research that couldn’t have gone unnoticed atop GM or inside Opel headquarters in Rüsselsheim.

In the first half of last year, the study said, the Ford brand in Europe booked 973 euros of profit per vehicle. Peugeot-Citroën, the primary brands of PSA, collected 844 euros per vehicle. Opel, by comparison, pocketed 190 euros per vehicle.

Ugh. Numbers like that should persuade even the most die-hard GM booster inside Opel (to the extent there are very many) that continuing Detroit ownership is not likely to yield a materially different result.

Not with European trade rules poised to be turned upside down by Britain’s now-official exit from the European Union. Not with tightening regulatory requirements mandating more investment in emissions, engine technology and electrification.

Not with European buyers increasingly favoring the SUV-style crossovers that Opel is fielding in partnership with ... you guessed it ... PSA, not engineers back in Warren. Opel and PSA, the thinking goes, know the European market and its buyers more intimately than GM’s vehicle developers in Michigan or Asia.

“The cooperation with PSA from my point of view is promising,” says Schäfer-Klug, the union leader. “It’s less complex to work with PSA. They know the European market.”

They should, anyway. In one transaction, Opel/Vauxhall’s 40,000 employees — 18,000 of them in Germany — get a chance to meld with PSA to form Europe’s No. 2 player just as the perennial No. 1, VW, is grappling with its biggest crisis since World War II. In just about any language, that’s an opportunity worth seizing.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.