The Automotive Industry: A 30,000-Mile Checkup

By Ealey, Lance A.; Troyano-Bermudez, Luis | The McKinsey Quarterly, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

The Automotive Industry: A 30,000-Mile Checkup


Ealey, Lance A., Troyano-Bermudez, Luis, The McKinsey Quarterly


Several years ago, the authors advised automakers to start pursuing downstream revenues in service, parts, and ancillary products and to build brands that reach buyers on a more emotional level. How did that advice hold up?

In 1996, we observed in these pages that the global automotive industry had reached a plateau in the developed economies. [1] By the early 1990s, sales growth had flattened in North America and Europe, and when the Japanese economy went into recession in 1991, the industry's sole remaining island of rapid growth went with it. Yet, if anything, Wall Street was less patient than ever with the slow growth and incurable cyclicality of the business.

Stagnating wages and improved durability were causing consumers both to hold onto their automobiles longer and to buy used ones when the time finally came to replace them. Yet the already high price of new vehicles made further price increases, in the face of strong competition and sluggish sales, impossible.

We offered two ideas in response. First, we advised the automakers to broaden their almost exclusive focus on selling new vehicles and to start pursuing the 60 percent of light-vehicle revenues to be found further downstream, in service, parts, and ancillary products. Second, we urged car companies to build brands that appealed to people on a more emotional level, by creating vehicles that "surprise and delight" instead of trying to impress buyers with further innovations in technologies that were already adequate to their needs.

Only a few companies were already pursuing these strategies back in 1996. Have additional automakers done so since then? If so, we thought it would be interesting to know how they--and therefore we--had fared. So we undertook our own 30,000-mile checkup of the industry. Here is what we found.

Moving into the aftermarket

Broadly speaking, automotive managers have come to view all vehicle-related services as their domain. Almost every major original-equipment manufacturer (OEM) is now experimenting with downstream participation in one form or another--whether it is taking equity positions in dealer networks, acquiring parts-and-service companies, or offering car buyers telematics products ranging from active-navigation systems to emergency call services such as OnStar (General Motors) and Rescu (Ford). [2]

While the downstream experiments of most companies have been somewhat isolated, Ford's cover a wide spectrum (Exhibit 1). Its president, Jacques Nasser, says the company's official goal is "to become the world's leading consumer company that provides automotive products and services" rather than just the leading seller of cars. In the past two years, Ford purchased a driving school focusing on young drivers (hence, future car buyers), as well as Kwik Fit Holdings, one of Europe's largest independent vehicle-service chains. More recently, it announced plans to become a major force in vehicle recycling, among many other businesses. As not only the world's second-largest automaker but also one of the industry's leaders in total return to shareholders and profit per vehicle, Ford bears watching.

In the past, major initiatives--for example, lean production, the quality revolution, and the redesign of product development in the 1980s and '90s--were industry-wide, allowing OEMs to benchmark themselves against an easily identified (and, typically, Japanese) "best-in-class" competitor. But because the push downstream is still experimental and proceeding on so many fronts at once, no benchmark has emerged (Exhibit 2).

Downstream rules

Despite the lack of definitive outcomes, these experiments offer certain lessons. First, OEMs should choose their targets carefully. Downstream markets offer rich rewards, but a deep profit pool by itself does not promise opportunity: OEMs must examine the level of fragmentation in each market, the barriers to entry, the possibility of future discontinuities caused by emerging technologies or a tightening of regulations, the influence of aligned industries, and so forth. …

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