Ford Motor Co. beating General Motors Co. in U.S. sales in February may signal a new automaker atop the industry as Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally pares operating costs and refreshes the vehicle lineup.
Monthly results released yesterday showed Ford topping GM in deliveries for the first time since 1998. Before that, the Dearborn, Michigan-based company’s last win was in 1970, based on Ford data. Both triumphs came when strikes idled Detroit- based GM, which has been No. 1 in U.S. annual sales since 1931.
“Ford’s advantage over GM could be the new normal,” said Shelly Lombard, a debt analyst for more than two decades who is now at Gimme Credit LLC in New York. “GM is still in turnaround mode and Ford is six steps ahead. Ford has the products, a new reputation for solid quality and management focus.”
Mulally, who joined Ford more than three years ago from Boeing Co., has championed redesigned sedans such as the Taurus, presided over a 47 percent cut in the North American workforce since 2006 and, unlike GM, avoided bankruptcy. The Ford brand rose to eighth place in 2009 from 23rd in 2001 in the initial quality survey by consumer researcher J.D. Power & Associates.
GM exited court protection last year with a plan to drop half its U.S. brands. The winding down of those units damped February results, and CEO Ed Whitacre reshuffled the sales team for the second time since December.
Ford reported a 43 percent increase in sales to 142,285 in February, topping the 33 percent average estimate among 5 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg. GM reported sales of 141,951 units, a 12 percent gain that trailed the analysts’ projection of a 20 percent increase.
“It could be a turning point,” said John Wolkonowicz, an analyst with IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Massachusetts.
Ford’s U.S. market share was 18.2 percent, compared with 18.1 percent for GM, according to researcher Autodata Corp. in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey.
“We’re not measuring ourselves against any other company,” George Pipas, Ford’s sales analyst, said in an interview. “We’re measuring ourselves against the consumer.”
Jason Laird, a GM spokesman, said: “None of our internal benchmarks are against another company. And one game does not a season make.”
Toyota Motor Corp., which has been second in annual U.S. sales since 2007, said deliveries fell 8.7 percent to 100,027 after its global recalls. The drop at the world’s largest automaker was less than the 10 percent predicted by Santa Monica, California-based research firm Edmunds.com.
“The No. 1 spot is up for grabs now more than it has ever been,” said Jesse Toprak, vice president of Santa Monica-based researcher TrueCar.com. “Ford clearly is going through a major recovery and has a very nice trajectory for sales growth. But GM and Toyota both clearly have a shot.”
GM’s February results showed the effect of the planned sale or shutdown of Saab, Hummer, Saturn and Pontiac as part of last year’s government-backed bankruptcy. Those four vehicle lines plunged 86 percent to 3,102, GM said.
Deliveries for the remaining brands, Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick and GMC, rose 32 percent from a year earlier, GM said. Volumes more than doubled for the Buick LaCrosse sedan and Chevrolet Equinox SUV.
“We have not moved far enough, fast enough,” GM North American President Mark Reuss said on a conference call in announcing the creation of separate arms for sales and marketing in the region.
Susan Docherty, vice president for sales, service and marketing, was shifted to handle only marketing. Steve Carlisle, most recently executive director of Southeast Asia operations, became vice president of U.S. sales operations, GM said.
Docherty was given her previous duties on Dec. 4, three days after Whitacre, 68, added the CEO title to his job as chairman when the board ousted Fritz Henderson. Docherty and Carlisle will report to Reuss, who was appointed in December.
Whitacre has said he wants to defend GM’s market share as he tries to halt about $88 billion in losses from the end of 2004 through last year’s first quarter. He has said he hopes for a profit this year. Mulally, 64, steered Ford to net income of $2.7 billion in 2009.
The U.S. industry is still recovering from last year’s plunge to the lowest sales levels since 1982.
February sales ran at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 10.4 million, according to Autodata. Snowstorms curbed showroom traffic across much of the U.S. last month. Manufacturers, dealers and investors use the sales pace to compare monthly totals by taking into account seasonal buying patterns. Annual U.S. sales averaged 16.8 million last decade through 2007.
Ford fell 19 cents, or 1.5 percent, to $12.22 yesterday in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. The shares have climbed 22 percent this year.
Ford last outsold GM on an annual and quarterly basis in 1930, when founder Henry Ford and his son, Edsel, were running the company, according to Ward’s Automotive Reports.
Toprak, the TrueCar.com analyst, said Ford, GM and Toyota would jockey for the top spot in the U.S. throughout 2010.
“These three will be very close to each other for the remainder of the year,” Toprak said. “It will be a head-to- head-to-head competition for the foreseeable future.”
Keith Naughton, Mike Ramsey