NEW YORK – A few years ago, it would have been unthinkable that General Motors would all but pull out of a major auto market, especially if rival Ford vowed to stay in.
That's exactly what is happening in Russia, where GM said Wednesday that it would idle a plant in St. Petersburg and halt sales of its Opel brand and most Chevrolet models. Meanwhile, Ford continues to invest. Auto sales in Russia fell 10 percent last year and declines have accelerated in 2015 amid growing tensions over President Vladimir Putin's annexation of Crimea.
"While GM still plans to have some presence in the country, their go-to-market strategy will be decidedly more high-end and de-emphasize the mass volume opportunity," Joseph Spak, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets, said in a note to clients. "This is in stark contrast to Ford which has similarly acknowledged difficult conditions in the country, but continues to view Russia as potentially becoming Europe's largest market."
These days, GM is willing to cut bait in tough overseas markets if Chief Executive Mary Barra and her team don't see strong returns. In the years before GM's 2009 bankruptcy, former CEO Rick Wagoner relentlessly chased size and scale either through new investment or joint ventures.
"We've been reviewing our global operations over the past couple of years," GM President Dan Ammann told reporters this month. "We're perfectly willing, if we don't see a really good business case to invest somewhere, to make the tough decision and move on."
The divergence of approaches also plays out with automakers such as Renault and Hyundai that have significant operations in Russia.
The Russian market is GM's latest decision to cut poor-performing businesses overseas. In February, GM said it would pull back in Indonesia, which followed plans to close plants in Australia and the removal of Chevrolet from the largest car markets in western Europe.
GM Europe hurt the Detroit-based company's adjusted earnings before interest and taxes by about $1.4 billion last year. The company expects the unit to generate a profit by 2016.
Meanwhile, Ford has said that leaving Russia was not an option. The Dearborn, Mich.-based company is making a big investment with six new models from the middle of last year to the end of this year.