Ford Is Shopping Its Money-Losing South American Unit to Rivals

Ford Motor Co. is pondering an exit from the South American market and has started shopping its money-losing business there to rivals Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and Volkswagen AG, according to people familiar with the matter.

The automaker made overtures to several competitors while considering its options for the unit, said the people, who asked not to be named because the conversations were private. Dearborn, Michigan-based Ford hasn’t shown a pretax profit in South America since 2012 and has lost $4.2 billion in the market since then.

Chief Executive Officer Jim Hackett is willing to consider a range of options to get out of the business or at least end a prolonged period of losses, the people said. Shopping the South American operation, which had $5.8 billion in sales last year, coincides with a global restructuring that the company said would take up to five years and cost $11 billion. Ford is spending billions to develop electric and self-driving cars and Hackett has determined it can no longer afford to pour money into South America with scant hope of a decent return, one of the people said.

While Ford made the approach, it may be hard to get a deal done because other carmakers are wary of increasing their exposure in a market with unstable currency and political risk, one of the people said.

Ford called Bloomberg’s report inaccurate. “Ford is not considering an exit from South America,” spokesman Brad Carroll said in an emailed statement.

Spokespeople for Fiat Chrysler and VW declined to comment.

The drain from South America was a topic on last week’s conference call as Ford posted disappointing earnings and lowered its profit forecast for the year.

“Our business in South America lacks a strong competitive position or profit pillars,” Bob Shanks, the automaker’s chief financial officer, told analysts last week . “We have not earned an appropriate return on investment over the most recent economic cycle that spans from 2004 to the present. For those reasons, we are moving on a significant redesign of our business model focused on where to play and how to win.”

South America

Ford has sold cars in South America for more than a century. It operates primarily in Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela and its Ranger pickup is one of its top sellers there. The automaker has eight manufacturing plants and employs 13,657 workers in South America, according to its 2017-18 sustainability report.

VW CEO Herbert Diess told reporters earlier Wednesday that the manufacturer is generally open to expanding cooperation with Ford beyond a planned alliance in light commercial vehicles and noted that previous endeavors with its U.S. counterpart worked out well. But VW doesn’t need additional scale in passenger cars, and a turnaround of its own sizable operations in South America is progressing well, he said.

If Ford finds a buyer for the business, the company would be following in the footsteps of General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra. Under Barra, GM has either pulled back from or exited troubled markets such as Russia, Thailand, Indonesia, India and Europe to focus on technology development. GM agreed to sell its European Opel unit to PSA Group in March 2017 to end two decades of losses. The move was hailed by GM shareholders as smart allocation of resources.

In slides showing profit and loss by region in last week’s earnings, South America was shown as one of Ford’s lowest-performing geographic areas, with losses of $178 million in the second quarter. The slide said most of the South American operation was “low performing” and in need of a “significant redesign” to generate sustainable profits.

Last fall, JPMorgan Chase & Co. auto analyst Ryan Brinkman said in a note to investors that Ford would consider options to turn the business around or even get out, including possibly working with rivals on some kind of tie-up.

— With assistance by Christoph Rauwald

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