Caterpillar Inc. Prepares to Improve One of its Greatest Competitive Advantages

The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) was trading 74 points higher, or 0.45%, by midafternoon after a three-month-low U.S. jobless claims report offered investors hope in a gradually strengthening economy. Initial unemployment claims fell to 323,000 last week, which was lower than economists' expectations of 335,000. "Initial claims returned to a more normal level, consistent with healthy labor market conditions," said Yelena Shulyatyeva, an economist at BNP Paribas in New York, according to Reuters.

With those figures in mind, and ahead of tomorrow's closely watched Labor Department payroll and unemployment report, here are some companies making big headlines today.

Caterpillar product floor. Source: Caterpillar.

Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT  ) is leading the Dow higher, trading up 1.6% by midafternoon. The move comes after the company's analyst day this week during which Caterpillar highlighted some of its competitive advantages. A big advantage has been Caterpillar's extensive national dealer network which helps customers avoid costly downtime. With the global economic downturn hurting business – revenue checked in at $66 billion in 2012 before dropping 16% last year, with flat guidance for 2014 -- Caterpillar plans to improve its dealership network to help revenue growth. This, though, could cause some pushback.

Caterpillar previously organized its dealerships by region, which produced huge disparities between profitability of the top and bottom performers. Management's goal is to now compare dealerships across the globe; dealers that continue to underperform a set plan will have until the end of this year to come up with a strategy to raise key performance metrics.

The risk Caterpillar runs is that poorly performing dealerships won't be able to step up to the improved sales plan, which could undermine its successful network. That said, Caterpillar expects the results to be worthwhile.

"This is not a plan to cull our dealers or drive consolidation -- although you can expect that some of that will occur," Caterpillar executive Stuart Levenick, who will manage the financial turnaround effort, told Reuters. "But we do expect results. If you are not aligned, if you're not progressing toward those results, then you can expect us to move judiciously to make changes. ... They all get that."

If Caterpillar can indeed find a way to propel its worst-performing dealerships closer to its top performers, it could see a huge boost to its top and bottom lines. In fact, the company claims the strategy could increase sales and revenue at the dealer level by $9 billion to $18 billion over the next four years. That would be a huge win for Caterpillar and its investors.

Cadillac's 2014 CTS. Source: General Motors.

In other news, General Motors' (NYSE: GM  ) successful Cadillac brand has been recognized as a "Customer Champion" by J.D. Power. It's the third time the Cadillac brand has earned the distinction; it is one of 50 companies across nine industries to win the award. 

"We believe that every interaction -- at our website, in the showroom or on the service lane -- represents a defining moment, an opportunity to differentiate ourselves and earn the loyalty of a customer," said U.S. Vice President of Cadillac Sales and Service Bill Peffer said in a press release issued this week. "This philosophy of defining moments is what drives our new products, and we strive to carry that through to our sales and service experiences."

This is good news for GM investors because Cadillac, and luxury lineups in general, are a must have in the global automotive industry. Luxury vehicles bring in higher transaction prices and profits, as well as incremental sales since they don't compete with high volume mainstream vehicles. Cadillac sales increased nearly 22% last year, more than any other brand under GM's umbrella. 

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