FIAT INDIA HAS FAILED TO CONVERT A SECOND WIND INTO A FULL-FLEDGED TURNAROUND.
Of all the automakers who have ever entered the Indian market, Fiat has had the most interesting, and disappointing, history. The company was one of the earliest to start in India and was a well-known brand even before Suzuki entered the country. At that time, Fiat’s presence was only a legend, one that it had become a part of with Premier Automobiles Ltd and its Padmini model. PAL had taken a Fiat 1100 and rechristened it to the Padmini in India. Thanks to the era of strict licenses governing automotive production, the Padmini’s lifecycle had stretched beyond Mr. Fantastic’s capabilities. With only three major models on the roads, Indians had terrific recall of the Padmini still popularly known as the Fiat.
The Italian brand really entered the country in 1996 with the launch of the Uno. The car met with unprecedented enthusiasm and the initial bookings crossed 260000. However, a slew of problems starting with a strike at the plant made sure that the Uno eventually sold a fraction of that number in its lifetime. The models after that always had a mixed reception and Fiat’s stay in India since then has been a series of ups and downs.
Make that mostly downs.
Global Problems Damage Indian Operations
In a way, Fiat was the ideal folly to Maruti. To Suzuki’s Japanese small car ancestry, Fiat had the best DNA – of a European small car manufacturer. Unlike Suzuki, the Italians had aesthetics in their blood and made beautiful cars.
However, advantage Fiat ended just there.
Suzuki had almost no competition in the market and a huge pent up demand when it started rolling in 1984. People were ready to buy any car that would provide an alternative to the HM Ambassador or the PAL Padmini. That it came from a government owned company just made it better.
Twelve years down the curve, the market had changed. While the demand was even bigger (260k bookings are an indicator), Fiat now had Suzuki to contend with. It also had multiple new entrants like Ford, GM, and Mitsubishi, all entering the market at the same time. The Indian customer was getting exposed to new products and was getting picky.
More than that, Fiat had to contend with global problems that hampered its focus on the Indian market. The Uno was followed by the Palio/Siena which were followed by nothing for many years. The time was marked by badly rebadged variants on the Palio platform like the Stile, Petra and Adventure.
None of them sold much.
Fiat’s next serious car for the Indian market was the Punto, introduced in 2008. By then the brand had been reduced to selling only a handful every year and a chunk of dealerships had deserted it. Customer confidence was the pits and Fiat looked headed straight to oblivion as things stood.
More than the domestic problems, it was again the global problems that the company faced at the time which led to Fiat India’s downfall. Bereft of capable products and too occupied with its fight for survival at the global level, Fiat let things slip in India and never mounted a serious challenge with a new product lineup. The Palio was capable but overpriced. By the time Fiat’s desperation for numbers corrected the pricing, the Palio was old and dated.
Nothing new was coming as models like the Panda were never green-flagged. Others up the spectrum were never in the reckoning due to pricing issues and the (not so great) image that Fiat had already been branded with in India. As a result by the middle of the last decade, Fiat India was left with a single platform which resulted in very few sales. Worse, it was difficult to grow as attracting dealers to a sinking ship is always a challenge.
Desperate Situations Call for Suicidal Measures
By 2007, Fiat realised that they couldn’t go any further in the Indian market.
Alone, that is.
The need of the hour was to find a partner. The only thing was to find a partner equally desperate.
By the same time, Tata Motors had achieved some success with its domestic passenger car business. The Indica Gen-1, a failure at the starting line, had found its second wind and was selling briskly. Tata also had a sizeable array of utility vehicles, all doing reasonably well. The company’s Medium & Heavy Trucks business was at a high, riding the cycle that had seen sales exploding from 2005 onwards.
Best of all, Tata had the Ace, a recent indigenously developed small truck that was a superhit with small operators and was doing five digit monthly sales by 2007.
However, the company had also steadfastly earned a reputation of making cars matching the quality of the company’s heavy trucks range. Considering Tata’s trucks had a WW II lineage, this could not have been good for the business in any way.
More than the quality, Tata’s shortcoming was in the product development area. The Indica had taken long to develop, was overweight & underpowered, and it had taken many years for the company to iron out the quality issues. Ditto with the Safari. By the start of the century, Tata had earned the dubious reputation of doing its QC Testing on the road, on actual customers. The company could develop cars but there was a wide gap between the product attributes and the market requirements.
The gap was even wider between Ratan Tata’s global ambitions and his team’s execution.
In short, Tata needed help in product development, engine development and even manufacturing.
Fiat could bring in everything.
They, in turn, needed help in improving penetration.
Tata could bring in its army of dealers. It was a match made in automotive heaven.
In Oct 2007, the two carmakers entered into a series of collaborations. On one side Fiat would supply its excellent 1.3-litre diesel engine to Tata and also assemble Tata’s Indica Vista hatchback and Manza sedan at its Ranjangaon facility. On the other hand, Tata’s dealers would also double up as Fiat dealers. Both assumed it was a win-win deal. The bonhomie went to the extent that both OEMs started to look seriously at developing a next generation global platform.
Then the glass shattered.
High Risks with Limited Profits
Very little in the agreement worked for Fiat.
Manufacturing the cars for Tata and supplying the engines (to Tata, Maruti, GM and whoever else wanted them) was extremely profitable. Unfortunately for Fiat, Tata’s Vista and Manza models – the two models assembled by Fiat at Ranjangaon – never took off. Despite the two being Tata’s best assembled cars, customers, most of which were now taxi operators, never took a fancy to the two models. Fiat’s upside was rather limited.
Selling Fiat cars through Tata dealers turned out to be a very bad idea. It would later turn out to be the automotive equivalent of weaning off heroine through cocaine. Tata’s dealers were never good, the sales experience bad & the service experience even worst. Subjecting its customers to using the Tata channel finished off whatever value was remaining by then in the Fiat brand.
The increased penetration did nothing for Fiat. While statistics tell us that sales jumped up by 58% between 2007 & 2008 and by a whopping 413% between 2008 & 2009, it is likely that the same could have been achieved without the Tata network considering Fiat had two brand new & very capable models – Grande Punto & Linea – in its lineup.
The year 2008 would turn out to be Fiat’s best year since 2002, a sales performance that has not been repeated till date. However, the instant gains from riding shotgun on Tata faded away soon as the customer experience was extremely negative. Tata dealers also ended up weaning away many potential Linea using Fiat as a leverage to sell Tata cars. So the Linea was unfairly compared to the Indigo Manza and the Punto to the Vista. ‘Using same engines’ was exaggerated by the dealers as ‘same mechanicals’ and architecture, pushing customers towards the Tata cars which were easier to sell and arguably offered better margins.
Arresting the Decline
Admittedly, the first two years under the Tata-Fiat sales joint venture were a honeymoon. Sales multiplied, partly due to an increase in Fiat brand’s penetration, partly due to two brand new models, but mostly because the brand had hit an absolute bottom in 2006 with annual sales of less than 1500 units.
You couldn’t fall further than this without shutting shop and booking a one way ticket to Italy.
However, 2008 was also the year when the honeymoon ended. After that there was a straight decline in sales, a trend which continued till 2013 by when sales had fallen down to a little above 10000 units for the entire year. Worse, Fiat had two models which were in the middle of their lifecycles and badly needing an injection of freshness & excitement. Brand Fiat had been battered as customers whined about the ‘Tata’ experience.
In contrast, things were quite different for Fiat globally. Marchioness move to integrate Chrysler into Fiat had reaped rich returns as sales were on the up. Driven by the global resurgence of the Jeep brand, Fiat-Chrysler (FCA) was delivering strong results. The momentum was expected to continue as the US economy had recovered and Europe couldn’t decline further.
It was the right time to look at doing better in emerging markets like India. The confidence from the global resurgence was the push that Fiat needed to break away from Tata and restart its journey on foraging an independent identity in India.
Separation and Freedom
The separation happened in March 2014 as Fiat announced that it would work on an independent existence in the Indian market. We appreciated the intent and honestly liked the whole idea of going solo and carving your own identity.
The first few months post separation continued with the downhill journey due to the momentum. However, things started improving as both the Grande Punto and Linea picked up momentum and the numbers started improving month after month. Within a year of separation, Fiat’s monthly numbers had more than doubled and had crossed a thousand units in rolling monthly dispatch averages.
12-MONTHS ROLLING AVERAGE SALES DISPATCHES
From now on, for the purpose of analysing sales volumes, EMMAAA would be using the 12-month rolling sales method. Under this system, we consider the last 12 month net sales as a better indicator of performance than the much used (and abused) monthly dispatch numbers. This shift to a 12-month rolling sales volume ensures that any sudden spurts or declines in volumes are ironed out effectively. Also, since sales volumes in India are not exactly sales volumes, but dispatch volumes, a 12-month rolling volume system effectively negates anomalies introduced due to minor factors like temporary production disruptions, over-jealous sales managers or temporary logistics issues.
By the end of FY 2014, Fiat was the fastest growing automotive brand in the Indian market. In a market that was on its way down, Fiat’s 86% growth in FY 2014 was terrific. It was the literal second wind for the company, that too managed on the back of two ageing models. It was a success story that needed a few shots in the arm.
Sadly, this is where the FCA management missed the proverbial boat. Just when they had learnt to stabilise the ship in the deep sea, they pulled out to go practice in the swimming pool. No new volume models came, none were planned and the pipeline stayed dry.
Sales / Dispatches having hit a peak in March 2014 of more than 1500 units slumped soon afterwards. By July, dispatches had fallen to less than half of the peak. Even the introduction of the Avventura crossover — an expensive Grande Punto on stilts — in Oct 2014, did nothing to stem the rot. Dispatches last month (May 2015) were all of 737 units.
Strings of Misses
When you have taken the bold step of undoing wrong decisions of the past and restarting everything, it has to be followed by even more confidence. In the case of Fiat, the ageing Grande Punto and Linea were fighting it in the market. Their impressive show in FY 2014 needed to be followed by an aggressive model strategy. FCA also needed to commit to the Indian market, the company’s prospective dealers and the Indian supplier community by starting work on a specific or heavily tailored model for the Indian market. We looked for a new Uno or Panda or even an earlier than expected new Punto. Sadly that didn’t happen.
The aggression and ambition were completely misdirected.
We got Fiat Caffè.
The idea behind the Fiat Caffè was to propagate the values of the Fiat brand to a wider audience. It was a kind of lifestyle lounge in the heart of Delhi (Delhi now closed but two more are operational in Pune and Bangalore) where Fiat afficionados could converge and discuss Fiats over the other popular Italian produce — coffee. In a way, Fiat was trying to take the automotive brand high space, associating itself with Italian lifestyle and design. It was trying to become the four-wheeled equivalent of Vespa.
Sadly even the Vespa doesn’t sell much in India.
They also outsourced the actual coffee to Barista, a chain as Italian as Sharma Pizzas in Meerut.
Dead Cat Bounce?
In the stock market it often happens that when a share has been hammered quite a bit, it often bounces back strongly. This is a dead cat bounce. Many investors suffer due to their misplaced optimism on a dead cat bounce. If the bounce is not supported by a lot of positive action on the fundamental side, the bounce fades away quickly and the share price starts its downward movement again, trapping investors.
Somewhere in FCA, there are a bunch of senior executives who do believe that the strong show after the Tata separation was something more than a dead cat bounce. Admittedly, we were of the same opinion as well till a year back but Fiat’s failure to improve on the fundamental side has cost it dear. The bounce is fading and the company is close to losing it again in the Indian market.
Somewhere, FCA executives regarded India in May 2014 as a comfortable win-win situation. Mike Manley, responsible for the group’s APAC activities and the Head of the Jeep brand, presented to analysts at FCA investors day in Auburn Hills, outlining the company’s five year business plan. In an industry incorrectly forecasted to grow at 12% CAGR during 2014-18, Mike forecasted Fiat to achieve 130,000 in sales in 2018.
This is a 51% CAGR growth from Mike’s estimate base of 25000 units in 2014. Frankly, we weren’t shocked. Fiat was doing well and if they introduced some more new volume products in the market, this was an achievable target. Ambitious, but achievable.
The problem, as we later realised after scanning — multiple times — through the ten slides on India in Mike’s presentation, was a complete lack of new products that could realistically deliver volumes. (Mike Manley’s presentation can be downloaded from here)
There was the new Grande Punto in end 2017, the Linea a few months earlier and even a new Avventura in end 2016. But apart from these three — all already a part of Fiat’s India range — there was nothing.
So where would the 130,000 in 2018 come from?
The 130k is especially worrying considering the whole volume jugglery was built on the assumption that Fiat would sell 25,000 units in 2014. They ended with 11640 units only. That’s not a great start to a plan that is already bordering on the insane.
Jeep and the Challenge of Being One
Yes, there was also Abarth and Jeep. Frankly with the amount of space devoted to these two brands in Mike’s ten slides, we are worried that FCA senior executives have started taking themselves, and the two brands, too seriously. They may be iconic and money-spinners in the global markets but have little potential in the Indian market.
So how many Land Cruisers does the country buy? Or how many Prados? That in a nutshell is the potential of a Jeep Grand Cherokee or Wrangler Sahara in the Indian market. Considering Fiat’s expected pricing of the Cherokee at upwards of INR 80 lakhs (INR 8.0 million) and the Wrangler’s pricing of 20% less than that, this in a nutshell is the potential of the brand in India.
There is also the Jeep Renegade, a small SUV that Fiat plans to assemble in India. Local assembly would likely lower the pricing but it would still not be a Duster rival by any count.
Meanwhile, Fiat brothers on the Renegade platform have been shelved for India, not finding a mention in Manley’s presentation.
Surprisingly, Manley’s presentation has attributed about 25000 units in sales to the Jeep brand by 2018. That’s more than 2000 units a month and means that at least one of the Jeep models, most likely the Renegade, will have to do a Fortuner-and-a-half in sales to meet the targets. That is unlikely and we forecast that Jeep — if they are here — would be off by a distance.
Surprisingly, luxury SUVs from the German manufacturers sell quite well and that is an area that Jeep may be looking at exploiting. The challenge is to position Jeep in a way that it gets perceived as a luxury / lifestyle brand. Traditionally the brand has enjoyed a semi-premium status in global markets but achieving the same in India may not be that simple.
Not when Mahindra has been making poor third-world imitations of the Wrangler for so many years that the mass market considers it the original. Problem is that the niche end of the market may be put off by the imitations flooding Indian roads and a lack of novelty whatsoever.
Abarth and the Futility of it all
Coming to Abarth, it is Fiat’s performance brand. Now the Fiat 500 does not sell well in India as it is astronomically priced. By ’not selling well’ we do mean really not well. Only a handful have been sold till date.
So when you take the 500, jack the power to beyond comprehension and the price to beyond ‘Holy Cow’, you get the 595 Competizione. This is a car that would be a trophy and would be treated like a family heirloom. The size of a matchbox and costing to the tune of a Mercedes C-Class, the first Abarth model in the country is unlikely to help Fiat in achieving its five year target of 130000 units. Heck, priced at a likely INR 30 lakh, it would be lucky to sell 30 units.
So will Abarth have a rub-off effect on Fiat? Maybe, but we doubt how considerable it would be.
Down to Three Again
Essentially, Fiat India would still only have three volume products in 2018. Would they be enough to touch 130,000? It looks unlikely if we keep in mind the current product configurations. The Linea is an Executive segment car but priced more to match the lower Mid-Size segment and yet it doesn’t sell.
In contrast, the Grande Punto is priced at the top-end of the Compact hatchback segment. Only the Volkswagen Polo manages to match the Punto in price unaffordability. Again, the Punto does not sell much.
So we have two products that try two contrasting pricing strategies and both don’t sell.
That leaves the Avventura. It is an interesting product – Fiat calls it a crossover, though in essence it is little more than a Punto with high heels. However, it looks interesting with the tailgate mounted spare wheel and the bicycle racks on the top. The problem is that the present Avventura is very close a concept to the Punto. So Avventura customers have walked from one end of the showroom to the other. Net gain for Fiat has been zilch.
Interestingly in Manley’s deck, the next generation Avventura is expected to come out before the new Grande Punto or the Linea. We forecast the next generation moving towards a proper crossover shape and not just being a Punto on steroids.
Perhaps that is the reason why Fiat used the Avventura name and not an extension of the Punto moniker like competitors Etios Cross, i20 Active and CrossPolo have done.
A crossover would be good news for Fiat in 2016 and may partly be the reason behind the ambitious 2018 target. Would it be good enough to achieve 130,000? Our fingers are not crossed.
Lack of Confidence and the Inability to Exude
Fiat India’s low volumes create another unlikely problem. At about 90 dealers across the country, each is selling less than nine cars a month. That volume is not good enough for a dealer to be adequately profitable. The brand doesn’t even have a large parc to support its dealers to make money from servicing. In such a scenario, keeping dealers motivated is a challenge. Attracting new ones, for both Fiat and Jeep brands, would be difficult.
Unlike Fiat brand car sales in India, the company’s manufacturing and licensing operations have done very well. The Ranjangaon plant supplies cars to Tata apart from making Fiat’s own cars. However, the biggest money spinner is the company’s 1.3-litre diesel engine. The engine is the largest selling diesel engine in the country by far. Tata Motors, Maruti-Suzuki and GM India all use variants of the engine with MSIL being the largest user by far.
This widespread licensing nets Fiat a tidy sum and selling cars becomes sort of secondary. Not a great strategy but still better than nothing.
Will Global Problems Derail Fiat again?
Historically, Fiat India has time and again been let down by the global operations. Problems at the global level have often left the company cash-strapped and unable to focus resources on the Indian market. This may happen once again.
Looking at the noises Marchionne has been making lately, it seems that Fiat may be globally heading for tough times again. The street is worried about FCA’s debt situation and the mammoth investment that is needed towards new product development. On the other hand, suppliers in the US have indicated that Fiat has delayed development of many new products, including the next generation Wrangler. Both happenings do not augur well for the future of the company and Marchionne has been rooting for further consolidation in the automotive industry. It is a strong indicator that FCA realises the high cost of going it alone and the street may have the right hunch.
In light of all this, it is a difficult guess if Fiat India would stick to even the wafer thin product plans that Manley presented. Already the introduction of Jeep has been delayed considerably. From 2015, as mentioned in the slide deck, Jeep’s plans were moved to a reveal and launch at the Auto Expo. Recent murmurs now indicate that this may be further pushed down as the costing is not convincing and the dealer network may not be ready. That is not the kind of confident start that Jeep needs in a market like India.