Page last updated at 23:00 GMT, Tuesday, 2 June 2009 00:00 UK

What next for GM's global empire?

By Robert Plummer
Business reporter, BBC News

Chevrolet's Brazilian website (screen grab)
Chevrolet's Brazilian range consists mainly of re-badged Opel models

Bankrupt US car giant General Motors now has some painful restructuring to do at home, but the implications for its sprawling global divisions are not yet fully clear.

Take GM's operations in Brazil, for instance, which represent the firm's third-largest market in the world.

GM vehicles made in Brazil carry the name of Chevrolet, a US car brand that dates back to 1911.

But all the saloon models that roll off the company's production lines in Sao Caetano do Sul and Sao Jose dos Campos are based on technology from its main European business, Opel, which is to be taken over by Canadian car parts firm Magna.

GM launched its first car in Brazil in 1968. The Chevrolet Opala, as it was known, was a tropical version of the German-made Opel Rekord, and soon became a favourite of the police and security services under military rule.

Production of that model ceased in 1992 after more than a million sales. But the modern GM Brazilian range still features a whole host of Opel-derived cars, including the Corsa, Celta, Astra and Zafira.

Only the S10 pick-up and the Blazer SUV come from GM's North American range.

International reach

So what happens to those Opel cars in the future?

GM do Brasil says there's no problem, since its North American parent looks set to retain a 35% stake in Opel after the European division is sold off.

Any technology transferred to Brazil will stay in Brazil, it seems.

GM logo
GM's bankruptcy has left many of its worldwide operations untouched so far

And the "new GM" that eventually emerges from bankruptcy protection in the US will continue to operate outside Europe and North America.

GM's other facilities are grouped into two regional divisions: Asia-Pacific - which covers India, Australasia and South East Asia - and LAAM, which contains Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.

Before Fiat dropped out of the bidding for Opel, its boss, Sergio Marchionne, had expressed interest in acquiring GM's Latin American arm.

But now GM says it has no intention of selling.

"GM is committed to the region and will continue to supply our customers with leading products," says the firm's LAAM president, Maureen Kempston Darkes.

Even so, GM do Brasil might be forgiven for worrying about the future, given that its business is founded on the technological innovation of a unit that is now being largely sold off.

Profitable part

Apart from Brazil, GM's LAAM division also has factories in Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Egypt, Kenya, South Africa and Venezuela.

It was the only one of GM's four world regions to turn a profit in the first quarter of 2009, with earnings of $500m.

The region has been a traditional testing-ground for ambitious GM managers on their way up.

GM production line (file pic)
Some of GM's international operations still bring in money

The company's current chief executive, Fritz Henderson, got his first big break when he was put in charge of GM do Brasil in 1997.

But even GM's best-performing markets are finding it hard to escape the global financial crisis and the consequent slump in demand for cars.

In January, GM do Brasil cut 744 jobs at its Sao Jose dos Campos plant. That was followed in February by the loss of 1,633 temporary contract workers at Sao Caetano do Sul.

Fast-growing China

GM's other major regional profit centre is China, which is also its second-largest market for cars - and by far the fastest-growing.

China's overall car sales have overtaken those of the US on a monthly basis since the beginning of 2009.

GM's Chinese operations are still profitable, with sales soaring by 17% in the first quarter of 2009.

But that was offset by falling sales in almost every other country in the region, leading to a $21m loss in the Asia-Pacific region for January to March.

GM has invested heavily in new capacity in China, in joint ventures with Chinese manufacturers such as Shanghai Automotive (SAIC) and the Wuling small van maker.

Fritz Henderson, GM chief executive
Fritz Henderson has the huge task of turning GM around

And it produces Buicks, seen as a luxury brand in China, and smaller vehicles, based on the Daewoo Matiz (Korea's Daewoo is also owned by GM).

But is faced with fierce competition from Chinese manufacturers, who have undercut GM on price in the small vehicle sector and copied its designs for both large and small vehicles.

GM has no intention of withdrawing from China, which it sees as the key to its future.

Indeed, with GM concentrating its small car production in Asia, the US auto workers' union fears that GM will begin importing many more of its small cars from China, undercutting US wages.

With the Chinese market booming, this may take some time to materialise. But as part of its bankruptcy deal, GM did agree to utilise the spare capacity of an idle US car plant to assemble its small cars.

Tarp trouble

Given the complex relationship between GM in the US and its overseas subsidiaries, there is still much confusion about where the buck stops.

Earlier this year, a mistake by a news agency led many US media outlets to report erroneously that GM was using $1bn of bail-out funds from the US government's Troubled Asset Relief Program (Tarp) to invest in Brazilian car production.

GM said the reports were "unequivocally wrong and without any basis in fact", adding that the investments were fully financed by GM's Brazilian operations.

But the incident illustrates just how difficult the trading environment has become for multinational firms such as GM as protectionist pressure grows.

US President Barack Obama has made clear that under the terms of his administration's rescue plan for GM, the share of its cars sold in the US that have been made in the US has to rise.

If other countries start imposing such conditions, world trade will start to look very different.



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