Sun, Jan 22, 2006 - Page 11 News List

Struggling Ford to unveil restructuring plan tomorrow

PRODUCTIVITY With the company's ratings falling further into junk status, analysts doubt if closing plants, cutting jobs and changing the product lineup will be enough


In a survey released this week, Ford Motor Co ranked last among major automakers in the use of its North American plant capacity. The company aims to change that with a restructuring plan to be announced tomorrow that will likely include closing some US plants, cutting jobs and changing the company's product lineup.

Already some are wondering if shutting 10 plants and laying off 25,000 hourly workers, as the Detroit News and the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday, will be enough to reverse the automaker's billion-dollar losses in North America.

Ford spokesman Tom Hoyt refused to comment on Friday on details of the plan, including the number of jobs that will be cut from Ford's North American work force of 122,877. Catherine Madden, an auto analyst at the consulting firm Global Insight Inc, said earlier this week the plants most at risk for closure because of the products they make, including sport utility vehicles and outdated sedans, are in St. Louis; St. Paul; Atlanta; Wixom, Michigan; St. Thomas, Ontario; and Cuatitlan, Mexico.

"Ford is in a very tough position with the amount of cash they have and the changes they need to make," Madden said.

Ford is under pressure to make a dramatic announcement after watching Wall Street's lukewarm response to General Motors Corp's restructuring plans last November. GM's shares fell after it announced plans to cut 30,000 jobs and close 12 facilities.

Ford's plan "is going to have to be different," Detroit restructuring consultant James McTevia said.

"I think the time for any of these domestic automobile manufacturers to procrastinate is over with," he said.

Both Standard & Poor's Ratings Service and Moody's Investors Service lowered Ford's credit rating further into junk status this month in spite of the upcoming restructuring.

"The Ford downgrade incorporates the view that the company's financial and competitive position will remain under considerable stress through 2007," Moody's said.

Unlike GM, which lost US$1.6 billion in the first three quarters of last year, Ford is a profitable company. At the North American International Auto Show this month, chairman and CEO Bill Ford said the company expects to report a profit when it releases full-year earnings for last year tomorrow. Ford's trouble has been in North America, where it lost more than US$1.4 billion in the first nine months of last year.

Bill Ford said that the No. 2 US automaker took a bigger hit than competitors when oil prices rose, since Ford relies disproportionately on sales of trucks and sport-utility vehicles (SUVs).

As SUV sales slid, production fell at Ford's North American factories. Ford used just 79 percent of its plant capacity in the region last year, down from 86 percent in 2004, according to preliminary numbers released this week by Harbour Consulting Inc, a firm that measures plant productivity. By contrast, Toyota Motor Corp was operating at full capacity, while DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group was running at 93 percent.

Ford's labor agreements with the United Auto Workers make it difficult for the automaker to cut excess capacity and jobs. The company currently has 1,100 workers on indefinite layoff in a jobs bank, where they get full pay and benefits. While UAW members did vote last year to require workers and retirees to pay more for their health-care coverage, the deal will shave only about US$850 million off Ford's US$3.1 billion annual health-care bill.

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