While Ford's (NYSE:F) profits in North America have been terrific in recent quarters, its sales growth has been nothing to write home about. Between production-capacity constraints and resurgent competitors, Ford's potential for significant sales expansion in its home market seems unlikely to amount to much in the near future.
Meanwhile, Ford's sales have actually declined in Europe, as economic troubles have led many consumers to steer clear of new-car dealers. That has led Ford to look to Asia for new growth -- and the Blue Oval has already bet heavily on finding it.
Ford gambles on its biggest expansion in decades
"We have very ambitious growth plans built on global products. Our plan is very aggressive, and a lot of it is based here in Asia." So said Executive Chairman Bill Ford, speaking to journalists in Bangkok on Thursday. And he's right: Ford's recent investments in Asia -- $5 billion-plus so far -- represent the company's biggest expansion effort in decades.
Ford is aiming to boost its global sales total to 8 million vehicles a year by 2015, up from about 5.7 million last year. That would be enough to put Ford's total global volume within shouting range of its biggest rivals: Toyota (NYSE:TM), General Motors (NYSE:GM), and Volkswagen (OTC:VWAGY).
Ford sees Asia, where developing economies have led to a massive demand for new cars, as the key to that expansion. Ford's current lineup is fresh and competitive; the key to generating this growth will be to build enough of the right cars in the right areas.
That's why Ford has undertaken a massive investment in new factories. Several have already opened, and several more are under construction:
- A new factory in Chongqing, China opened in February and began producing the Focus. Ford's acclaimed compact car was officially launched in China in April -- and has rapidly become a best-seller. The Focus is built on Ford's global "C-platform," shared with vehicles like the C-Max and Escape – both of which may also be produced at Chongqing in the future.
- Ford's second factory in Thailand, a $450 million facility in the city of Rayong, opened in May. The plant, which can build several different models at the same time, has been producing the Focus for various Asian markets.
Five more factories in China and two in India are currently under construction. Once completed, Ford will be able to produce almost 3 million vehicles a year in Asia. And so far, at least, it looks like those vehicles won't have too much trouble finding buyers.
Strong competition hasn't held Ford back
China's auto market is, of course, a hotly contested one. Nearly every major global automaker has set up shop in the Middle Kingdom, aiming for a piece of a vast and still-growing market that has long been dominated by Volkswagen and General Motors.
Toyota and Honda (NYSE:HMC) had been posting solid sales in China -- until a territorial dispute between the Japanese and Chinese governments led to an outburst of anti-Japanese nationalist sentiment. Dealerships were vandalized, cars were burned in the streets, and Toyota and Honda saw sales fall dramatically.
Toyota said this week that its China manufacturing output was down 61% in October, the result of a sales slump that some rivals -- including Ford -- have been able to turn to their advantage. Ford's sales in China were up 48% over year-ago totals last month, led by the Focus.
The upshot: Much more to come in China and elsewhere
Ford has said it will launch a total of 15 new vehicles in China by mid-decade, including several of its well-regarded SUVs, which have been a hot category in China as of late. Ford expects the segment to grow by 10% annually over the next few years, and it clearly intends to capture a substantial slice of that growth.
In the meantime, while Ford has struggled to gain traction in India, its prospects there should improve as incomes continue to rise. Low-cost automakers such as Tata Motors (NYSE:TTM) have outsized chunks of the market at the moment, but as incomes rise and consumers seek nicer cars, Ford should be well positioned to take advantage -- just as it is doing in China.