Fleeting Glory

Andrew Dederer
by Andrew Dederer
fleeting glory

The New York Times recently labelled GM a crack dealer for using $1000 gas cards to "addict" Californian drivers to its gas-guzzling SUV's. There are several important differences between selling a Schedule II substance to low-income drug addicts and marketing a legal product to responsible consumers in a free market. Suffice it to say, the Gray Lady's got it backwards: GM is the addict. The General is hopelessly addicted to fleet sales. Although GM has publicly announced its intention to reduce their reliance on this part of their business, it's nothing more than a junkie's promise to reform. In fact, none of the Big Three are ready, willing or able to leave their dependency behind.

There are two kinds of fleet sales: organizational and rental. In both cases, profit margins are minuscule. Manufacturers aren't overly concerned. They rely on the huge orders to increase production levels; which keep factories open, sudsidize union salaries and reduce a given model's cost-per-unit (CPU). A low enough CPU creates higher profit margins on the model's "regular" (i.e. retail) sales. The enormous volumes also facilitate all-important 'top sales' bragging rights and protect the manufacturer's Holy Grail: market share.

Selling cars to government agencies, schools, taxi firms and private companies is a slam dunk. Few local politicians or business owners want to risk ticking-off powerful [union] constituencies by buying foreign– unless the local car plant is foreign-owned. (And maybe not even then.) But the rental market is the big score: hundreds of thousands of vehicles per year. What's more, rental "sales" are actually short-term leases (usually six months). The numbers can be massaged to look even better if, say, you own the rental car company. When Ford owned Hertz, they offered themselves some mighty impressive deals; like four-month leases. That sort of turnover has an extremely salutary effect on a manufacturer's production figures.

On a balance sheet, there's nothing wrong with selling cars to yourself. From a long-term perspective, the damage is both massive and relentless. For one thing, rental cars don't disappear when their owners are finished. When "lightly used" rental cars flood the market, the vast supply of relatively low-mileage, good quality vehicles crater the model's resale value. The resulting depreciation hits retail customers hard– especially brand or model loyal buyers that trade-in their vehicle every three to five years. The chronic over-supply also reduces the possibility and profitability of competitive leasing.

The second effect is more insidious, but more dangerous: the "cheapening" of the model's name. Our old friend the Ford Taurus is a textbook example. Even before the model's "ovalization," Ford used Taurus sales to Hertz to secure the "top selling car in America" trophy. Without an inside line to a rental company, Honda and Toyota simply couldn't compete. Eventually, both automakers gave up trying; Honda made the US Accord a separate model and moved in the TL (which reduced their output enough to stay out of the running). Toyota simply bided their time, and moved further up-market.

As Mary Walton details in her book "Car", the '93 Taurus wasn't designed to out-sell Camry (mission accomplished). The new Taurus was supposed to "beat Camry" in the upper middle market. While the Taurus' execution wasn't flawless (the design was certainly challenging), its rental car reputation was the single greatest obstacle to moving the model up-market. The sort of people who would pay a premium for a premium sedan didn't even have the Taurus on their radar. Eventually the Taurus survived only to provide marginally profitable fleet sales; the retail market was practically non-existent.

General Motors also knows the drill. Many of their least inspiring models– Impala, G6, Malibu– find their primary home inside rental fleets. Their success in this less-demanding environment removes the incentive to upgrade the vehicles to compete in new car showrooms. Once the general public perceives a vehicle as a rental car, once they clock the depreciation, it's doomed. Although sales volumes indicate a winner, the rental fleets lock the models into a Taurus-like death spiral. GM claims it wants to reduce these sales, but in truth, they will have to go through a slow withdrawal. Going cold turkey on 25% of their business would be fatal.

There's no easy way for The Big Three to wean off themselves off fleet sales. One solution: design models specifically for rental fleets (the old Malibu was held over as the "Classic" for this very reason). Meanwhile, restricting fleet sales to a small percentage of retail sales is the only viable option. The move would help sustain their models' retail and resale values and increase the pressure to constantly and consistently improve their products. The Big Three say they're moving in that direction. But what are the chances struggling domestic automakers will resist the temptation to use fleet sales as a quick "fix" for slumping market share?

Join the conversation
  • Funky D I despise Google for a whole host of reasons. So why on earth would I willing spend a large amount of $ on a car that will force Google spyware on me.The only connectivity to the world I will put up with is through my phone, which at least gives me the option of turning it off or disconnecting it from the car should I choose to.No CarPlay, no sale.
  • William I think it's important to understand the factors that made GM as big as it once was and would like to be today. Let's roll back to 1965, or even before that. GM was the biggest of the Big Three. It's main competition was Ford and Chrysler, as well as it's own 5 brands competing with themselves. The import competition was all but non existent. Volkswagen was the most popular imported cars at the time. So GM had its successful 5 brands, and very little competition compared to today's market. GM was big, huge in fact. It was diversified into many other lines of business, from trains to information data processing (EDS). Again GM was huge. But being huge didn't make it better. There are many examples of GM not building the best cars they could, it's no surprise that they were building cars to maximize their profits, not to be the best built cars on the road, the closest brand to achieve that status was Cadillac. Anyone who owned a Cadillac knew it could have been a much higher level of quality than it was. It had a higher level of engineering and design features compared to it's competition. But as my Godfather used to say "how good is good?" Being as good as your competitors, isn't being as good as you could be. So, today GM does not hold 50% of the automotive market as it once did, and because of a multitude of reasons it never will again. No matter how much it improves it's quality, market value and dealer network, based on competition alone it can't have a 50% market share again. It has only 3 of its original 5 brands, and there are too many strong competitors taking pieces of the market share. So that says it's playing in a different game, therfore there's a whole new normal to use as a baseline than before. GM has to continue downsizing to fit into today's market. It can still be big, but in a different game and scale. The new normal will never be the same scale it once was as compared to the now "worlds" automotive industry. Just like how the US railroad industry had to reinvent its self to meet the changing transportation industry, and IBM has had to reinvent its self to play in the ever changing Information Technology industry it finds it's self in. IBM was once the industry leader, now it has to scale it's self down to remain in the industry it created. GM is in the same place that the railroads, IBM and other big companies like AT&T and Standard Oil have found themselves in. It seems like being the industry leader is always followed by having to reinvent it's self to just remain viable. It's part of the business cycle. GM, it's time you accept your fate, not dead, but not huge either.
  • Tassos The Euro spec Taurus is the US spec Ford FUSION.Very few buyers care to see it here. FOrd has stopped making the Fusion long agoWake us when you have some interesting news to report.
  • Marvin Im a current owner of a 2012 Golf R 2 Door with 5 grand on the odometer . Fun car to drive ! It's my summer cruiser. 2006 GLI with 33,000 . The R can be money pit if service by the dealership. For both cars I deal with Foreign car specialist , non union shop but they know their stuff !!! From what I gather the newer R's 22,23' too many electronic controls on the screen, plus the 12 is the last of the of the trouble free ones and fun to drive no on screen electronics Maze !
  • VoGhost It's very odd to me to see so many commenters reflexively attack an American company like this. Maybe they will be able to find a job with BYD or Vinfast.