BANGKOK - Ford Motor Co. invites automotive writers and analysts here for a "deep dive" detailing its plans to capture a 10% share of the emerging Asian automotive markets by 2005.
But what Ford didn't count on was the economic deep dive that would take place concurrently in Thailand and ripple throughout the region, extending to Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan and eventually South America.
Ford's toehold in the emerging Asian market is tiny - just a 1% market share at the moment - so it's not likely to have a big short-term impact on the No.2 automaker. But trouble in Korea, Japan and Brazil can't be good news. Ford and its Mazda Motor Corp. affiliate together own 17% of Korea's Kia Motor Corp., which has sunk into bankruptcy and is only staying afloat thanks to government banking support.
Hiroshima-based Mazda can't escape the malaise setting in on Japan. And after jump-starting its Brazilian operations, Ford now faces the dilemma of soaring interest rates aimed at shoring up the sinking Brazilian real, whose stability had marked that nation's economic boom.
There's more: The government also has raised car taxes. Neither trend bodes well for automakers.
It may seem incomprehensible, but Ford - perhaps one of the world's best-known four-letter words - is hardly recognized in these parts. Ford is moving to remedy that with an extensive advertising and public relations campaign, but if the markets remain deadsville it may be in vain.
Ironically, Ford has been trolling in Asian waters almost since it was formed in 1903. During the early 1970s Ford and other U.S. automakers made a significant foray in Southeast Asia, even developing low cost pickup-like vehicles to get the ball rolling.
None of the American "jitneys," as they were called, caught on - mainly because the Japanese already were supplying better trucks at lower prices. That, combined with periodic economic and political turmoil in the region, prompted the Americans to retreat, leaving the region wide open for the Japanese.
In the intervening 20 or so years, of course, the markets have developed and are charted for growth well beyond what Ford can expect at home or in Europe, where the big volume remains but where growth has stagnated.
The industry's globalization push also has motivated Ford and other automakers, who are forced by local policies to produce locally and export part of their output as the price of entry.
Low local labor rates also are a big attraction, of course, as are the wide range of investment incentives offered by local governments.
For the record, Ford thinks the Asian flu won't be fatal and won't last forever.
Says W. Wayne Booker, vice chairman with responsibility for business development in growth markets: "We think we've got reasoned investments in the area. Do I like what's going on? No, but I don't think it represents a long-term interruption. So what we've talkedabout won't be changed." In short, Ford's in for the long haul this time around.
Mr. Booker allows, however, that Ford's timing may change based on market conditions. And he says it may become "questionable" whether Ford would go into additional countries in joint ventures with Mazda, as it has done in Thailand, if Mazda already has a position in those countries.
Ford has scheduled $1.2 billion for assembly and component manufacturing in Thailand, Malaysia, India and Vietnam, the emerging markets that were the focal point of the "deep dive." It also has huge investments in China, where with partner Jiangling Motors Corp. it is launching assembly of the European Transit line of commercial vehicle and buses this month.
Ford Lio Ho Motor Co. was established in Taiwan 25 years ago, and is the market leader with a 17.5% share.
Ford also is eying a return to the Philippines, after departing in the mid-1980s because of political instability. Indonesia isn't out of the question, although current local policies aren't conducive to foreign investment.
Ford's Asian thrust is led by Terry de Jonckheere, 53, executive director-new market development, new markets and associations.
A tall, dark-eyed West Point engineering graduate with a masters from the California Institute of Technology and an MBA from George Washington University, Mr. de Jonckheere expects no miracles.
"Despite difficulties in some of these markets," he says, "you've got to go there if you're going to be a global player. The bottom line is we intend to become a household word here in Southeast Asia."
He acknowledges Ford has made some mistakes, but is learning from them. "In India we thought that gasoline engines would be as popular as diesels, but they weren't," he says. "So we had to switch to diesels."
Ford hired Automotive Resources Asia Ltd. based in Bangkok to evaluate the prospects for each of the so-called "Asian Tiger" countries. ARA President Michael J. Dunne, a native Detroiter, says the region offers plenty of opportunities "but there are serious entry fees," including government red tape that would make Washington look like a well-oiled machine. "There's very promising demand, but very uncertain territory," says Mr. Dunne who, despite its current collapse, still says that "Thailand is where I'd put my money." "Why? because it's a good place to do business, it has standard policies, 100% foreign ownership is permitted, it's the most competitive and it has export potential," he says. His advice: "Perseverance."
So where is Ford heading in Southeast Asia? Let's start with Thailand, where its Visteon components unit and AutoAlliance (Thailand) Co. Ltd., a 50-50 Ford/Mazda joint venture, have side-by-side facilities in the Rayong region on the eastern seaboard.
Called the "Detroit of the East" because of the heavy concentration of automotive plants in the territory - General Motors Corp.'s partially built new plant is a few football fields away - the AutoAlliance plant and related facilities represent a $500-million investment. The plant is built and is being tooled to produce a Mazda-designed pickup for both companies with annual capacity of 130,000, including 30,000 imported kits, starting next summer. A second vehicle, likely a small car, is planned for the facility.
Ford's man on the scene is David Snyder, 48, president of Ford Operations (Thailand) Co. Ltd. "We'll ramp up production based on conditions here," says Mr. Snyder. Because of Thailand's turmoil, "we may hold off some hiring or pull ahead export plans," which actually could mean more competitive prices since the trucks will be built based on the devalued Thai baht.
Ford currently has a skimpy 1.8% of the Thai market. If the Thai economy recovers, says Mr. Snyder, "we clearly expect to get 5% to 6% over the next five or six years."
Things look more stable in India, where two years ago Ford signed a joint venture with Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd. named Mahindra Ford India Ltd. (MFI). In August last year the first Ford cars, European-designed Escorts, rolled out of an existing Mahindrafacility. Investment: $60 million. Annual capacity: 25,000. In 1999, Fiesta will be added at a new plant with 100,000 yearly capacity and representing a $500-million investment.
Although India shows plenty of promise, at the moment the market is dominated by $6,000 cars built by Maruti Udyog Ltd. Ford's planning a low-cost small car for emerging markets, but Mr. Booker says it won't be a strippie. Meantime, with taxes, tariffs and other add-ons, a Ford Escort costs $12,000 in India, double Maruti's sticker.
MFI President John Parker, 50, doesn't see major sales volume in India soon. He estimates 10,000 Ford sales this year rising to the 20,000 to 30,000 range "by the early 2000s," suggesting a goodly number of those Fiestas will be earmarked for export. But the manufacturing economics look good. "We're seeing early signs that we can buy parts cheaper in India than in Europe," he says.
If Ford expected to encounter some land mines in getting started in Vietnam it wasn't disappointed. It discovered real land mines and other ordinance buried during the Vietnam war in the former rice field where it chose to build a factory near Hanoi.
Ford established Ford Vietnam Ltd. two years ago, a collaboration with Song Cong Diesel Co. (75% Ford, 25% Song Cong) with a total investment of $102.7 million.
Production of the Ford Trader commercial truck began in October and Transit is being added this month. Right now it's a tiny operation: 350 units will have been built in 1997.
Murray Gilbert, 50, a personable Ford of Australia veteran, is Ford Vietnam's managing director. Why enter Vietnam, currently a minuscule 22,000-vehicle market with 340,000 vehicles in operation? "It's small, but growing," he says. "Some 60% of the population (76 million total) are under 25. Most weren't even born when the war ended."
Local farmers, though not pleased at first with Ford's plans, later changed their tune. At the plant's opening, Mr. Gilbert says he spotted a sign saying, "Hello and Welcome, Friendly Revolutionary Comrades." Maybe they were relieved that Ford cleared the area. "We found a lot of unexploded ordinance and hand grenades," he recalls.
Ford entered Malaysia in 1968 in a venture with the Sime Darby Group called AIMI Holdings, chiefly to distribute Ford and Mazda vehicles built offshore. Sime Darby owns a 70% interest through a subsidiary. Just a few months ago AIMI began assembling Ford sport/utility vehicles (SUVs) from kits imported from the U.S.
Richard Canny, 36, AIMI general manager, remains optimistic about Malaysia's potential. But during Ford's "deep dive," he had just received word that the Malaysian ringgit had dropped from 2.1/$1 to 3.2/$1, and that to shore up its currency the government had quickly boosted the duty on imported 4x4 SUVs like Explorer from 50% to 200%. "We've sold 100 Explorers so far," he said.
"I don't know what the future holds."
That could be said about the emerging Asian nations as well.