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A GM failure could mean a world of hurt

The car giant's foreign units are profitable. But if their U.S. parent goes under, the ripple effect could be wide.

December 07, 2008|Ken Bensinger | Bensinger is a Times staff writer.

Nearly three-fifths of the employees at General Motors Corp. work for a company that makes cars that are admired, popular and profitable.

They just don't work in the United States.

GM has a bigger presence outside the U.S. than in it, employs more people in other countries than here, and actually makes money selling cars everywhere from Sao Paulo to Shanghai. Its U.S. revenue has sunk 24% in the last three full years, but in the rest of the world, GM can boast a 28% increase.

Now, as lawmakers mull whether to provide billions of dollars in loans to keep the Detroit-based company from collapse, GM's global reach has become in many ways its most overlooked asset and a key to its ultimate survival.

"A major argument for keeping GM out of bankruptcy is the strength of its foreign footprint," said Kimberly Rodriguez, a partner at accounting and management consulting firm Grant Thornton, which works with auto companies.

Yet because of the deeply intertwined nature of GM's global operations, if the company goes down here, she said, "there will certainly be problems for the company worldwide."

Company officials declined to discuss what would happen in the event of a bankruptcy. GM's foreign units are separate corporate entities, which means they would probably be shielded from a U.S. filing and could continue to operate without concerns of a U.S. court seizing their assets, for example.

Still, if the automaker's U.S. operations fail, as GM says they will without an immediate cash infusion, it could set off a chain reaction that would not only put U.S. parts suppliers out of business, but could throw off production schedules overseas and freeze up GM's foreign plants.

That, in turn, could have a ripple effect on its overseas competitors.

"I am very concerned about GM because we share suppliers with [GM subsidiary] Opel," said Klaus Berning, head of sales and marketing for Porsche, which produces all of its vehicles in Europe.

GM says it has been the world's top-selling carmaker for the last 77 years, edging out rival Toyota Motor Corp. last year by a narrow margin. But where GM sells the bulk of its cars has changed dramatically.

Through the first nine months of this year, 4.3 million of the 6.7 million cars and trucks GM sold -- nearly two-thirds -- were purchased outside this country.

And of the company's 252,000 employees, 152,000 work abroad, building Chevys, Opels, Vauxhalls, Holdens and Buicks in 33 countries.

"Those overseas businesses over the last several years almost uniformly have been quite profitable, and they have, in almost every case, been able to send dividends back to help us address funding issues in the U.S," GM Chairman and Chief Executive Rick Wagoner told members of the House Financial Services committee Friday, lobbying for a favorable vote this week on an aid plan.

Yet because the U.S. continues to be GM's largest single market in terms of revenue, with $115 billion in sales last year, and because it was founded by William Durant in Flint, Mich., more than a century ago, this truly global car company is still looked upon as a quintessentially American one.

Indeed, in two days of hearings last week, members of Congress repeatedly asked Wagoner, as well as the heads of Ford and Chrysler, to promise not to spend any of the bailout money on foreign operations.

So while 61% of Americans in a recent poll viewed the U.S. automakers as damaged beyond repair, and as Congress works to save the image of GM the American company, GM is a rising star in China.

The automaker's China operations include 11 plants and roughly 20,000 employees, not to mention a $250-million research campus in Shanghai.

On the line, workers like Ma Jianming, a technician in the quality department of the company's Shanghai Cadillac plant, can't imagine the company falling on hard times. Not with annual sales growth of at least 27% over the last four years.

"Many friends came to ask me if our company would be affected or even go bankrupt if our U.S. group goes bankrupt," Ma said. "But this is not the case. . . . We are still working overtime these days."

Five years ago, GM made almost no cars in China, and it sold roughly twice as many cars in the U.S. as it did in the rest of the world.

But with a rising middle class fueling demand in countries like Brazil, India and Russia, GM and other automakers see a golden opportunity for meteoric growth. And they are getting an assist from foreign governments eager to develop industry.

In the United States, the Big Three face crushing healthcare costs and restrictive dealer franchise laws, and are burdened with a factory network built to produce the gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles now collecting dust on dealer lots.

Abroad, however, GM operates clean and lean -- paying competitive salaries, benefiting from government-paid healthcare coverage, and producing small, economical vehicles geared to those markets.

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