Volvo purchase lifts Geely; JLR deal less dynamic for Tata

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Volvo was the first Western carmaker to export a premium China-made car to the U.S. in 2015 with the S60 Inscription, shown.

Photo credit: Richard Johnson


Bloomberg
August 14, 2017 10:37 CET

MUMBAI/BEIJING — Tata Motors and Zhejiang Geely Holding Group both bought iconic luxury brands from a struggling Ford Motor Co. in the wake of the global recession. The acquisition of Volvo by Geely and Jaguar by Tata were met with skepticism from investors, who now view the two companies very differently.

Since Geely’s $ 1.5 billion purchase of the Swedish automaker in 2010, the Chinese company has seen the share price of its listed unit increase sixfold in Hong Kong trading. India’s Tata, which bought the UK’s Jaguar Land Rover two years earlier for $ 2.5 billion, has merely doubled in the same period. The contrast is even starker if one shortens the timeframe: Tata is down about 21 percent this year, while Geely is up 155 percent.

The difference, says Jochen Siebert, a Singapore-based automotive consultant, lies in what the companies have done with their landmark purchases. Under Chairman Li Shufu, Volvo was able to lower its costs and gain economies of scale by manufacturing and selling in China, the world’s largest auto market. Geely in return benefited from the technology of the more established Swedish automaker through the development of common underpinnings, which Volvo also uses for its smaller models.

When Tata wanted a partner to help it break out of the domestic India market, it looked not to its luxury division, but to Volkswagen Group’s Skoda. JLR and its Indian parent were just “too far from each other” in positioning, preventing them from creating any synergies between them, said Siebert. Talks about a partnership between Skoda and Tata ended last week without a deal as the projected cost savings fell short of expectations, leaving the latter without a global partner.

“Tata sees JLR as a stand-alone and a financial shareholding,” said Siebert, managing director of JSC Automotive Consulting. “As long as Tata doesn’t want to develop into a higher-positioned brand in its own right, there is just no way to cooperate with JLR.”

Volvo’s ethos

Tata didn’t immediately offer a comment on the market perception of its acquisition of JLR.

A spokesman for Zhejiang Geely Holding said in a message sent by WeChat that the success of the acquisition “has been down to Volvo’s strong product range and customer-centric design and engineering ethos.”

Tata is now almost entirely dependent on its luxury unit for profits. JLR accounted for 78 percent of the group’s total revenue and 96 percent of its operating income. Sales of Tata’s own namesake brand of vehicles contributed 1.3 percent to operating profit, behind that of construction equipment.

This has made the parent vulnerable to any hiccups at the British unit. When JLR said it expects pressure on profit margins to continue due to higher incentive levels, investors sent Tata’s stock down 8.6 percent to a 15-month low on Aug. 10. Deliveries at JLR grew at a slower 4 percent pace in the April-to-June quarter because of weak demand including for Land Rover’s Discovery Sport and Range Rover Sport SUVs.

JLR also counts China as a major market and Tata can do little to help in the world’s biggest auto market given its lack of presence there, said Bill Russo, managing director of Gao Feng Advisory Co.

By contrast, Volvo was the first Western carmaker to export a premium China-made car to the U.S. in 2015 with the S60 Inscription. The company last year began building high-end versions of its S90 premium sedan in Daqing, China for global exports and plans to assemble vehicles in India this year, starting with the XC90 SUV. Geely and Volvo also worked together to develop a compact-car platform that will be used by Geely’s upscale Lynk & CO brand.

Geely’s investments in factories and in-house technologies have resulted in a series of new car models, a spokeswoman for Volvo said in an email response. The transformation continues with two new joint ventures formed between Volvo and Geely this month, she said.

Geely has thrown a lot of money at Volvo without concern for an immediate return, a luxury available to an unlisted company, says Janet Lewis, an auto analyst in Hong Kong with Macquarie Group Ltd. This has enabled the Swedish company to invest in technology, whereas it was relatively starved of development money under Ford ownership, she said.

“The longer-term challenge for Volvo is its tiny scale. Even combined with Geely for volume, it is going to have a hard time meeting the increasing technology needs when it is up against well-funded giants like Toyota, VW, Renault-Nissan-MMC and GM,” said Lewis. “JLR faces similar challenges with its small scale and its main hope is that Tata ties up with a global partner in India.”

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