Financially troubled Peugeot of France, Western Europe’s second-biggest car manufacturer in terms of sales, has based its recovery plan partly on the delusion that it can magically transform its vehicles into premium products commanding big profit margins, just like the Germans.
Peugeot and its Citroen brand sold 1.3 million cars in Western Europe last year for a market share of 11.1 per cent, second only to mighty Volkswagen of Germany’s 24.8 per cent, according to Automotive Industry Data.
But Peugeot has been shedding market share, and it has been losing money at an alarming rate of almost $10 billion between 2012 and 2013.
Yesterday, Peugeot’s new CEO Carlos Tavares, unveiled a long-awaited turnaround plan which he labelled “Back in the Race” which calls for a two per cent operating margin by 2018 rising to five per cent between 2019 and 2023. Tavares also targeted 2 billion euros ($2.8 billion) of operating cash flow in total between 2016 and 2018.
Earlier this year Peugeot unveiled a three way deal in which the French state and Dongfeng Motor of China each took 14 per cent stakes to rescue the company. Part of this deal forced the owning Peugeot family to see its stake diluted to 14 per cent from the previous 25.4 per cent, and the French media quickly dubbed this unwieldy structure the “three-headed monster” or the “lion with three heads.” The Peugeot corporate logo shows a lion, with one head.
Some critics said the Tavares plan was not only unambitious, but despite the small profit target, also might not be easy to reach because competitors, also no slouches when it comes to losing money, were desperately trying to recover too.
Bernstein Research analyst Max Warburton put it this way, although he did see the targets being met.
“The targets look very conservative and somewhat distant. Targeting two per cent margins in four years is a bit of a cold shower in an era when Renault (of France) has targeted five per cent, Ford Europe 5-6 per cent, VW six per cent and when Fiat (Fiat Chrysler Auto) is about to target the moon,” Warburton said.
“But we believe most will join us in concluding these targets are excessively conservative relative to peers – especially given Tavares’ previous claim that (Peugeot) was already profitable in Europe in the early months of 2014 and the growing evidence of a European volume recovery,” Warburton said.
Kristina Church, analyst with Barclays Equity Research, thought that Peugeot might not even meet the easy targets, and cast doubts on the plan to move upmarket, which would mean engaging with the established German premium players like BMW, Mercedes and Audi.
BMW’s 1 Series, the Mercedes A class and Audi A3 are examples of the German premium manufacturers, pressured by new fuel efficiency rules moving down market at the expense of the higher margin vehicles made by the mass car makers like Peugeot.
“We find it difficult to get excited, especially as these targets are clearly not overly ambitious. Beyond this, to reach their goals the road ahead will not be an easy one, particularly given the competition is fully geared up for the same race that (Peugeot) is competing in,” Church said.
“The plan to focus on differentiating brands has merit, but we question whether (Peugeot’s) strategy to expand their upmarket DS will succeed, particularly in an environment where premium players are launching smaller vehicles to help meet CO2 standards,” Church said.
Tavares said part of the plan involved paring down the model line-up by around half, and moving some of the remaining products upmarket using its “DS” brand to command higher prices and profit margins.
This easier-said-than-done strategy didn’t meet with much support either, and is a reminder of various failed and egocentric efforts in the past by mass car makers to mess with the premium companies.
Over the years Europe’s mass car makers have all tried to sell big, upmarket cars trying to just undercut BMW, Mercedes and VW’s Audi, but always failed because their brand strength was inadequate. Of course, this never stopped until huge amounts of shareholder assets were squandered. And they are persistent. Last year at the Frankfurt Car Show, Ford unveiled its Vignale upmarket version of the Mondeo (Ford Fusion). Renault pushed its new Initiale Paris brand. Even Volkswagen is not immune, with its doomed attempt to compete with Mercedes, BMW and even its own Audi brand with the Phaeton. VW has even threatened to come back with a Phaeton II.
The “DS” badge” is an effort by Citroen to add glamour to its products by reminding buyers of past glories. The classic DS pushed new technology with its aerodynamic design and self-levelling hydraulic suspension in the 1950s and 60s.
David Bailey, Professor of Industrial Strategy at the Aston Business School, thinks this won’t cut much ice in the market place.
“Simply slapping a “DS” badge on fairly humdrum cars today simply opens up criticism that Peugeot is trying to use an iconic brand to drum up some sales for cars that don’t compete very well either against the budget brands moving up market like Hyundai and Kia, or the premium brands encroaching on the mass market – think BMW 1 Series or Mercedes A class,” Bailey said.
“Peugeot should concentrate on cutting excess capacity and costs, and doing a better job to compete with the likes of Kia and Hyundai. That means making stylish fun cars that can sell on their own terms and which come with decent warranties and support. Trying to compete with the established premium players needs a twenty year effort – witnesss what Audi did – and it’s not at all clear that Peugeot has the resources or patience to stick to such a plan. Trying to shift up market usually means spilling lots of red-ink,” Bailey said.
Kia and Hyundai started with affordable, reliable down market cars with great guarantees, moving up the price chain with better designed cars, until they began selling on their merits as great-looking, and reliable. That’s the way to do it, although seeing the Korean’s recent attempts to sell cars that challenge the premium Germans on their own turf prompts the question – will they succumb to ego too?