Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Irish motor industry is on Skid Row

The Irish motor industry has somersaulted onto Skid Row ensnared by the barbed wire of constrained credit, high and increasing levels of unemployment, shrinking family income, higher income taxes and fundamentally altered buying patterns. The car buyer is sovereign again and demands value and a high level of customer service.

Sales of new private cars in Ireland in the first quarter of 2009, 27,140 units, were one third lower than in the first quarter of 2007, according to CSO data. But the real twist in this saga is the soaring increase in imported used car. The average annual number of used vehicles licensed for the first time in Ireland between 2000 and 2004 was under 17,500. But the number of used card licensed for the first quarter of 2009 was 15,455 – almost 57% of the number of new cars bought and licensed in the country. A used car, for Revenue assessment purposes, is a vehicle over six months old. Years ago Irish buyers had a penchant for used cars imported directly from Japan but the current trend is underpinned by imports closer to home.

No sector, apart from property, was more central to the thrust of the Celtic Tiger than the motor industry. Sales of private cars between 2000 and 2008 exceeded 1.49 million units, equivalent to an average of 165,000 per year. Sales of prestige and cars with an engine capacity greater than 1600cc increased as a percentage of the total from 21% in 2000 to 32% in 2007. This was quite an accomplishment for a country with a population of 4 million.

Unit sales of private cars for the 9 years to 2000 were 901,700. Average annual sales of private cars in the early 1990’s were under 72,000.

There are obviously value considerations supporting these developments but price is only one aspect of value, service and customer response to this is the other.

Bad Dealer Service in Dublin

Last week I had a conversation with a colleague, Orla, about her recent car buying experience. She and her husband, George, are car buffs and take exceptional care of their vehicles. Orla wanted to buy a new BMW. Her first step was to visit the Dublin-based BMW dealer from whom in 2005 she purchased a new BMW and who serviced it. The patronising attitude of the salesman appalled her. He insinuated that there appeared to be a shading inconsistency on the bonnet, perhaps caused by a collision. The car had never been in a scrape but Orla was quickly coming to the opinion that this salesman was attempting to engineer a proposition which would be more attractive to him than to her. Orla decided that there were no circumstances that she would buy a new car from this dealer.

She travelled to Isaac Agnew Belfast and the outcome of this exploratory visit was that she purchased her new, but 6-month old 2008 BMW, there. The transaction was conducted in a professional, painless and convenient style and there were gestures of goodwill too.
George and Orla travelled by train to Belfast the day they collected the car. They were met at the station by the dealer’s representative and when Orla collected her new car she was also presented with a beautiful bouquet of flowers and a full tank of petrol. Orla is a happy customer driving a car with a higher specification than she could afford in Dublin. But is her approach to buying a BMW isolated?

Frankly, no! BMW sold 2,529 new cars licensed for the first time in Ireland in the first quarter of 2007. The corresponding figure in first quarter of 2009 was 736. Some 1,208 used BMW’s were imported into Ireland in the first quarter of 2008 which means that there were 3,707 drives of BMW’s new to them in the first quarter of 2008. There were 1,889 used BMW’s imported into Ireland in the first quarter of 2009 which means that there are2,625 drivers of BMW’s new to them in Ireland – 29% fewer than a year earlier. But 71% of these purchased their BMW elsewhere.

A similar trend to this prevails in Ireland in the case of Audi, Lexus, Land Rover and Volkswagen, to mention just a few.
The BMW Quarterly Report to 31 March 2009 reveals that its automobile division had a 21% downturn in sales compared to the same period in 2007 and delivered 49,808 fewer vehicles in Europe (169,520 in Q3 2009 compared to 219,328 in Q3 2007). Apart from BMW vehicles, the Group also sell Mini and Rolls Royce cars.

Good Dealer Service in Dublin

I have a friend, John, in Glenageary who is now retired but once worked in an industry allied to the motor business. When John intends to buy a consumer durable the depth of his research beforehand amazes me. His background evaluation is methodical and thorough. He taste in cars varies and he has never been persistently committed to one make. He has driven Triumph, Fiat, Nissan, Mazda, Opel, Volvo and Peugeot over the years.

He now drives the first 2009 registered cars that I noticed this year but it was the third week of January when it appeared. His choice this time is a Skoda Octavia which he purchased from a local main dealer who offered a proposition that pleased him greatly.

Skoda is a minor player on the Irish car market but this brand has maintained its 4% market share this year and last. There were 116 used cars imported in the first quarter of 2008 and 2,220 bought and licensed here. This year there were 257 used Skoda imports and 1,194 sold and licensed here in the first quarter. There are 1,451 driver of Skoda’s in Ireland that are new to them in 2009 and 17% of these bought their Skoda elsewhere, compared to 71% of the 2009 BMW drivers.

Would this not mean that the Skoda dealer is more successful winning the trust and confidence of their buyers than their BMW, Audi, Lexus, Land Rover and Volkswagen counterparts? I don’t know but many of these car manufacturers dumped the local dealers and started to sell directly in Ireland in recent years. Perhaps the Irish car buyer prefers the old dog for the long road!

US Auto Industry meltdown

The Irish Times ‘Business This Week’ section last Friday reported the ‘end of the road’ for Chrysler as it filed for bankruptcy protection. I recall being in Cape Cod Massachusetts on 21 July 1969 at what is now the Highland Museum and Cape Cod Light when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. At that time Americans defined themselves by the models of true-blue Michigan manufactured car they drove as well as exulting in the accomplishment of Armstrong and Aldrin. The throaty roar of the Ford Mustang was the icon of aspiration!
It amazes me that the Japanese car manufacturers’ ever gained a foothold in the American market. Toyota made its debut in 1957 and Honda in 1963, while Soichiro Honda, the founder of the famous brand was still active in the business. I lived in Boston between 2000 and 2005. There was not a single car listed in the ten most popular manufactured by one of the top-3 traditional US manufacturers. The big-3 have seen their share of the US vehicle market drop from 85% to 43%.

When Charles Wilson, the president of General Motors appeared before Congress in 1953 in connection with him becoming Secretary for Defence (1953-57) he was asked if there was a conflict of interest. He responded that “what is good for America is good for GM and vice versa”. The market capitalisation of GM in 2000 was €50 billion. The market capitalisation in March 2009 was under €830 million – slightly less than the current market capitalisation of AIB.

The downfall of these titans is attributed to poor strategic decision making. Swaggering, but baseless confidence, hubris, lack of courage, foolish decisions made and critical decisions avoided are features of this. Will the Irish motor industry learn from this or will inertia prevent them from doing so?

The Irish Government is also feeling the pain. Excise duty receipts for the first quarter of 2009 are €450 million lower than the first quarter of 2007 and VAT receipts are €600 million lower for the same period.

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