It's been a rough ride for investors in Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F) this year. First came the retirement of CEO Alan Mulally, who had steered Ford's turnaround from a company that lost more than $30 billion between 2006 and 2008 into one that delivered a pre-tax profit of $8.6 billion in 2013 (not to mention that Ford performed this magic trick on its own dime rather than with a structured government bailout).
The automaker is also burning billions of dollars annually in Europe and South America, and warranty costs ballooned by nearly $250 million in the second quarter to $658 million during the third quarter. Largely because of those factors, Ford was forced to reduce its pre-tax guidance for 2014 to roughly $6 billion, down from $8.6 billion in 2013.
It seems that even with Ford's immense potential, there's always a new pothole derailing the company's progress. Is it finally time to give up and sell Ford stock?
Not yet, in my opinion. While there are many reasons to remain bullish on Ford, let's look at a production and sales strategy that will help the company rebound in 2015 and beyond.
Starting from the top
Let's start with something most investors already know: 2014 is a building year for Ford. The Blue Oval is launching 23 new or redesigned vehicles across the globe -- including Ford's best-selling and most profitable vehicle, the F-150 truck -- which will drive revenue higher. In fact, Ford is banking on its fresher vehicle lineup to drive global sales from 6.2 million in 2013 to 9.4 million by 2020. While that sales growth will help Ford's top-line results, even more important is how Ford plans to bring more of that top-line revenue to bottom-line profits.
Ford is far ahead of its Detroit competitors in consolidating platforms to produce vehicles more efficiently across the globe, thus saving money and improving margins. As recently as 2007 Ford had 27 separate platforms for its lineup of vehicles; now, the company uses 15 platforms and expects to have 99% of its global production on nine platforms as soon as 2016. Consolidating platforms is expected to drive Ford's automotive operating margin from 5.3% over the last couple of years to 8% by 2020. Ford's strategy to improve its bottom-line earnings doesn't stop there, either.
The automaker is also improving its sales mix. October sales figures in the U.S. showed that the company continues to wind down its sales to daily rental businesses -- the type of fleet sales that hurt residual values and contribute very thin profit margins.
Ford's daily rental business declined 13% year over year for the month, while government and commercial sales were up 4% and 18%, respectively. That wasn't a one-month wonder, either, as Ford's sales through rental channels declined 18% through the first 10 months of 2014. Ultimately, focusing on healthier fleet sales, and continuing to make retail sales a larger percentage of overall business, will improve profitability.
To put it bluntly, by 2015 Ford will be making better and newer vehicles with a more efficient production process, and selling those vehicles to more profitable channels. And that's not all.
Consumer loyalty matters
When it comes to securing a company's future bloodline, it's all about attracting a younger consumer. That's especially true in the automotive industry, where consumers often stick with the same brand for multiple purchases. In 2008, according to Maritz Research, Ford ranked fourth in brand consideration with the millennial generation, which includes roughly 80 million consumers born between the early 1980s and early 2000s. At the end of 2013, though, Ford had jumped to first place. Ford is attracting more affluent buyers as well, which will drive average transaction prices higher as more premium options are purchased.
A recent example of this is Ford's Explorer. According to the company, roughly 25% of Explorer and 40% of Explorer Sport buyers earn more than $150,000 a year. That 25% mark is much more favorable than the overall brand's 17% rate.
While Ford won't break even in Europe next year, its losses will be drastically reduced, which will add valuable dollars back to its bottom line. The company expects to lose roughly $250 million in 2015, favorable to the $1.5 billion lost in 2012 and the $1.7 billion loss in 2013.
Furthermore, by the end of the decade, Ford's growth in China will help its Asia-Pacific region account for roughly 40% of company revenue, up from 8% today. In a couple of years, Ford will have drastically reduced its automotive debt levels and pension underfunded status, and will be able to use the cash it previously spent on those obligations to return more value to shareholders through dividends and share buybacks.
Ford investors have had their share of heartburn this year, but the company has made great progress in many aspects of the business that are difficult to see. Hang in there: 2015 will be much better for the automaker and its investors.