The slump in European auto sales that has prompted plant closings and layoffs may finally be turning the corner for Ford Motor Co.
The Dearborn automaker is gaining market share on the continent, thanks to a handful of new vehicles, said Roelant de Waard, vice president of marketing, sales and service for Ford of Europe, in a telephone interview. Ford is following the same restructuring template overseas that worked in North America during the U.S. economic crisis four years ago.
"It's fair to say there are a lot of parallels. I think the analogies are remarkable," de Waard said. "The retail share, which is what we also focused on in the U.S. with all the new products, we're following that trend in Europe."
Ford's European restructuring plan is nearly identical to the one executed in the States: slash thousands of jobs, cut a good deal of vehicle production, and inundate the market with new and refreshed vehicles. The turnaround of Ford's North American operations is the defining moment of Alan Mulally's six-plus year tenure as the automaker's CEO.
Vehicle sales industrywide are running at 20-year lows in Europe,due to a sovereign debt crisis, plunging consumer confidence and automobile production overcapacity.
But in May, Ford's vehicle share in the 19 traditional European markets grew 0.3 percentage points to 8.3 percent, the second consecutive month of increases and the highest May share since 2009, according to Ford's estimates.
Leading the way for Ford are recent vehicle introductions that include the B-Max subcompact wagon, Kuga compact SUV and Ranger small pickup.
The European Automobile Manufacturers' Association, which tracks sales throughout the region, will publish its monthly industry sales report on Tuesday.
Ford's commercial vehicle share is projected to grow 0.8 percentage points in May to 9.2 percent, the automaker's highest share since 2008.
Ford's sales of all vehiclesin those 19 European markets totaled about 100,000 in May, which is down about 2.2 percent compared with the same month a year ago -- a sign that troubles in Europe are still not over -- but less than the projected industry decline of 6.2 percent.
The last month of "somewhat strong" European auto sales was in May 2012, de Waard said. June sales are expected to be up compared with last year, and with new product offerings coming later in 2013, he sayssales should change direction from their downward spiral of the past year-and-a-half.
No end in sight
European auto sales were on an 18-month decline until April, when sales rebounded slightly. Many attributed the sales increase to an early Easter holiday, which occurred in March. Industry sales, when reported Tuesday, will show a year-over-year decline in May.
But no automaker is quite sure when the sales slump will end.
Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Fiat SpA, the parent company of Auburn Hills-based Chrysler Group LLC, last week warned that "the market still has not hit bottom."
But Ford has said that sales in five countries -- Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Spain -- appear to have hit rock bottom. Those countries comprised "the lion's share of the industry decline."
Still, other markets are just beginning to suffer sales drops, such as Germany, where sales dropped 8.5 percent in April, following back-to-back record-setting years.
Automakers close, sell plants
Automakers have tried to implement sweeping job and production cuts in Europe, but those changes have been made difficult by strong labor unions.
Ford, projected to lose $2 billion in Europe this year, will shut three plants in the region by 2014, slashing 20 percent of its continental production capacity. It's a costly move, as Ford's assembly plant in Belgium could cost $1 billion to close.
General Motors Co., on pace to lose $1 billion in Europe in 2013, shuttered an Opel plant in Belgium in 2010 and plans to close another plant in Germany in 2014.
Fiat sold its Termini, Italy, plant in late 2011 and has tried to close others.
All three are injecting new vehicles into the market.
Ford is readying its Tourneo Connect van, EcoSport subcompact SUV, Fiesta subcompact car and Focus Electric compact car for Europe. In all, the Dearborn automaker is in the midst of 15 new vehicle launches in Europein five years. GM's Opel brand has experienced early success with its new Mokka and Adam subcompact vehicles. And Fiat plans to launch nearly 20 vehicles in the next few years, particularly those from the Alfa Romeo and Maserati brands.