Last month, Mulally traveled to Brasilia to announce that Ford will boost planned investment in Brazil to $2.4 billion between 2011 and 2015, up from the $2.2 billion it had announced last year. The initial amount was allocated to expand and upgrade production plants. The added $200 million will go to develop a new global vehicle, the Ford EcoSport small SUV, which will be designed and initially produced in Brazil and sold throughout the world.
The vehicle symbolizes Mulally's One Ford vision, in which the sprawling $131 billion company's worldwide operations seek to act as one. "The development of truly global vehicles and platforms is an essential part of our plan," Mulally said during his visit. Mulally has brought "an energy around One Ford and being global," said Marcos de Oliveira, the Sao Paulo-based president of Ford Brazil, in an interview. "Before, each region was operating more as an independent company, and we couldn't really achieve scale in design or production."
Automobiles are a big deal in Brazil, accounting for 23% of gross domestic product in one of the few major economies that managed to largely avoid the impact of the global recession.
"Brazil was never really involved in the subprime crisis: it was more a shell-shock situation," said Guido Vildozo, IHS Global Insight analyst for Latin America. "So the government acted to back up credit and make funds available for auto lending,"
Vehicle sales rose 11% in 2009 to 3.14 million, a third consecutive annual record. This year, Brazil is expected to pass Germany to become the world's No. 3 auto market, behind China, the U.S. and Japan.
Ford does well enough. The fourth quarter of 2009 marked the 24th straight quarter of profitability for Ford South America, which is primarily a Brazil operation. But far from being Brazil's leading automaker, Ford has ranked fourth for years. In 2009, Ford had a 10.3 % share in Brazil, behind
with 21.8% and
with 19%. Fifth was
, with 4%.
"Ford has been in Brazil since 1919, but was focused on the midsized and high-end segment of the industry," said de Oliveira. "In the last 10 years or so, we started to grow in the most important segment (small cars), which is about 65% of the market. That is where the biggest opportunity is."
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Today the Ford KA, an entry-level small car, is the second best selling Ford car in Brazil. Ford's bestseller is the Fiesta, also a small car. One of the lessons Ford has learned is that for small and midsized cars, Brazilians prefer European styling, and so the EcoSport will be developed from a platform engineered in Europe. (Ford's 1,200-member Brazil product engineering group includes engineers from around the world.)
For trucks and commercial trucks, the muscular American approach is preferred. In the commercial truck segment, which includes F Series vehicles, Ford has a 19% share, behind Munich-based
"Since 2000, we've grown our share from 7.5%, a result of the new product lines in the country, additional capacity and our desire to grow. said de Oliveira, 50, who has worked in three continents during 26 years with Ford. "We've grown but we want to grow more"
The current EcoSport was developed in Brazil, designed for Latin America and launched in Brazil in 2003: it is now Brazil's top-selling SUV. Now, the next generation model is being designed in Brazil to be built and sold around the world, with production to begin in Brazil in the next few years.
Besides the Eco Sport, Ford's Brazil lineup includes the Focus, a midsized sedan introduced in Brazil at the end of 1998, just five months after it was launched in Europe. "That was unheard of -- we had never launched a product in Brazil or Latin America so quickly after Europe," de Oliveira said. The two versions are similar, although vehicles used in Brazil must be tailored to accommodate engines that burn gasohol or ethanol. The Brazilian market is also characterized by enough unpaved roads to require high-durability standards. Ford has two assembly plants as well as an engine plant in Brazil, where it employs 14,400 workers.
Meanwhile, the Fusion, a larger sedan built in Mexico, arrived in Brazil in 2006. Considered a midsized car in the U.S., it is a large sedan by Brazilian standards and it has 50% of the segment's sales.
Vildozo said Ford is making progress. "They are becoming more aggressive," he said. "The big thing for Ford is to bring out significant products. But they need to improve the profitability per vehicle, rather than just increase volume."
Historically, the Brazilian market has been characterized by low acceptance of features such as air conditioning, power steering and automatic transmissions, but that is changing.
"Until about three years ago, Brazil was a market of entry-level (small) vehicles with very low levels of equipment, but in the past three or four years, the take rate has been growing along with the purchasing power of the population," de Oliveira said.
-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.