Fiat banking on luxury brands

Last updated 12:16 31/10/2012
Sergio
SERGIO MARCHIONNE: "This is truly not for the faint-hearted. We have not shied away from a fight."

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While European competitors close factories and  get government bailouts, Italian carmaker Fiat is banking on its under-exposed luxury brands to put idled Italian car plants to work and stem losses in its European operations.

Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne announced an ambitious four-year plan on Tuesday to ramp up production of Alfa Romeo and Maserati brands in Italy, where Fiat will launch 17 new models to be built in its five Italian plants from 2013-2016.

Fiat, which owns US carmaker Chrysler, also will unveil a new smaller Jeep for production in Italy aimed primarily at Europe, and focus the Fiat brand on the 500 and Panda compact car ranges.

"This is truly not for the faint-hearted," Marchionne said. "We  have not shied away from a fight."

The investments are part of new capital expenditures of €16 billion to €18b in 2013-2014 across the  Fiat-Chrysler alliance.

Marchionne believes they could "provide a permanent solution" for the quandary facing his under-utilised European plants, which are running below 50 per cent capacity.

Under the plan, Fiat Europe - which lost €238 million in the third quarter alone - would break even by 2015-2016.

Fiat's move is the latest response by European automakers to the fifth consecutive year of declining car demand.

Ford Europe announced its response last week, saying it would  close factories in Belgium and Britain that will put some 6200 European workers out of a job and take out 18 per cent of its European capacity.

The French government has offered €7b in aid to PSA Peugeot, the No 2 carmaker in Europe, in an attempt to stave off 9500 layoffs.

Marchionne - who has advocated that the European Union come up with a roadmap for co-ordinated plant closures to better control the  impact - said he felt Fiat had "already given" by closing a Sicilian plant that took 100,000 cars out of the carmaker's European capacity.

"In the case of Fiat, it would have relegated us to be a minor player in the European market because of the social consequences," Marchionne said.

The Italian-Canadian CEO has been under intense union and political pressure not to close plants. Fiat is Italy's largest industrial concern and employer.

Marchionne also acknowledged that the historic Lancia brand, a nameplate that once produced the official sedan of Italian presidents, was not profitable enough and would be scaled back.

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IHS Auto analyst Pierluigi Bellini said the plan was much more realistic than Marchionne's last industrial plan, which envisioned investments of €20b in Italy alone to double domestic auto production.

"The margins are lower, the volumes are lower, the trading margins are lower. This therefore lowers the expectations on Fiat,"  Bellini said.

The risk, Bellini said, is that the plan relies heavily on the success of Alfa Romeo, with nine new models planned by 2016, all but one for production in Italy.

"If Fiat wins the bet on Alfa Rome, it is good for Italy,"  Bellini said. "If it doesn't go well, there will be some pain."

He noted that Marchionne had previously failed to meet ambitious production targets for Alfa, by holding back on investments.

The CEO also lowered his previous goal for Fiat and Chrysler to produce 6 million cars combined by 2014 to 4.6 million to 4.8 million a year. Fiat along with Chrysler expects to produce 4.2 million cars this year.

Earlier Tuesday, Fiat trimmed its 2012 forecasts because of expectations that the European car market will remain weak into 2014.

Despite the darker outlook, the company returned to profit in the third quarter, as strong North American sales by Chrysler and good demand in Latin America and Asia offset the weak European market.

Net profit for the quarter ended September 30 was €39m, up from a loss of €46m a year earlier. Revenue rose 16 per cent to €20b.

Net profit including assets not wholly owned by Fiat more than doubled to €286m from the same period last year, beating expectations.

The company shifted its full-year forecasts toward the lower end of its earlier ranges, putting 2012 net profit in excess of €1.2b .

- AP

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