The new GM looks abroad

chevrolet_zafira.top.jpgWith vehicles like the Chevrolet Zafira, GM hold the number three sales spot in Brazil. By Alex Taylor III, senior editor


FORTUNE -- What will likely be the defining characteristic of the new General Motors has gone largely unnoticed in the analysis of its initial public offering prospectus filed earlier this month: the degree to which it is no longer a North American-centric company.

Already 72% of the company's vehicle sales already are generated outside the U.S. and that number is certain to grow larger in future years.

As GM moves more of its business overseas, it will have major consequences for the management of the company and its culture, the direction of its product development, and the allocation of capital.

With opportunity comes risk, of course, and operating in a large number of different regions and countries exposes GM to political and economic risks, as well as foreign regulatory requirements that are subject to change. Among those cited in the prospectus: economic tensions between governments, political instability, natural calamities, war, and terrorism.

Overseas growth could also lead to clashes with joint-venture partners, strains on corporate culture, and raise knotty issues about branding. A recent brouhaha over the use of Chevrolet's traditional U.S. nickname, Chevy, in overseas markets may give only a hint of what is to come.

GM's current international tilt is the result of a strong offshore push begun in the mid-90s under then-CEO Jack Smith. While Smith's strategy of buying stakes in overseas manufacturers like Suzuki and Saab failed, he understood the importance of the rest of the world from his experience running GM Europe, and it has paid off in GM's strong position in developing markets.

Nearly 40% of GM's unit sales now come from countries with emerging economies, notably the BRIC countries of Brazil, Russia, India, and China, which not so incidentally are also experiencing the industry's highest volume growth.

GM claims the number-one market-share position in China, where it began operations in 1997, and the number-three spot in Brazil. Across the BRIC countries as a whole, it finds itself the market share leader with 12.7%.

Selling globally can be a marketing nightmare. In addition to its familiar brands like Germany's Opel and Australia's Holden, GM disclosed it will be selling cars under such unfamiliar names as Daewoo, FAW, Jiefang, and Wuling.

Customers may find it confusing too, as GM rolls out the Chevy brand around the world on vehicles that are about as American as the Eiffel Tower. In Europe, for instance, the vehicles sold as Chevrolets are made in South Korea by GM Daewoo.

In its prospectus, GM makes much of the fact that it plans to launch 19 new models in North America by 2012. But that pales in comparison to activities elsewhere around the world. GM's international operation, which excludes Europe, plans to launch as many as 77 new vehicles through 2012 in places like South Korea, South Africa, and the ASEAN region.

Besides enabling GM to leverage its global platforms and spread the costs of new technology, operating in countries with developing economies offers enormous potential savings.

According to the prospectus, 17% of GM's vehicles are manufactured in medium-cost nations like South Korea and Brazil, where wages and benefits run between $15 and $30 an hour. And remarkably, 43% of its vehicles are manufactured in low-cost locations such as China, Mexico, Eastern Europe, India, and Russia where all-in labor costs less than $15 an hour. That's about one-quarter of what UAW members in the U.S. get.

GM is directing much of its resources to China, where its Buick brand is well established and where it is expanding the number of nameplates sold under the Chevrolet brand. Because of China's rules regarding foreign corporations, GM operates through three joint ventures with Chinese companies: one for passenger cars, one for mini-commercial vehicles, and one for light commercial vehicles and medium vans.

The three joint ventures sold 1.2 million vehicles in the first six months of 2010 and produced equity income of $734 million. By comparison, GM North America accounted for just 1.4 million vehicles.

One potential irritant is the growing ambition of GM's passenger car partner, Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC), which may find itself competing with GM in the near future. In addition to producing Buicks, Chevys, and Cadillacs, SAIC also makes vehicles under its own name for sale in China. As GM's IPO prospectus dryly notes, "At present, vehicles that SAIC produces primarily serve markets that are different from markets served by our joint ventures," with the emphasis on "at present."

Besides China, GM is putting a big push on South America. It is creating a new regional organization, GM South America, headquartered in Sao Paulo, Brazil, which will begin business later this year with 29,000 employees. The new organization will have product design and engineering capabilities that will allow it to continue creating local cars and trucks.

As North America, as well as Europe, fade in importance to the health of the corporation, GM's direction going forward is clear. Not too long from now, GM's headquarters in downtown Detroit may seem like a corporate backwater compared to more exciting developments in Shanghai, Sao Paolo, and elsewhere. To top of page

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