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Creating Economies of Scale in the Auto Industry

The German automakers are under some pressure. They need to have a small car in their product line-up in order to respond both to consumers’ growing preferences for smaller cars and to government pressures to reduce fuel consumption and carbon emissions. BMW has answered with its One series. Volkswagen has taken a 20% stake in Japan’s Suzuki Motor Corporation, which is a small car specialist. Mercedes Benz has decided to go an alliance route.

Recently, Daimler, the maker of Mercedes Benz automobiles, announced an alliance with Nissan and Renault to create a common line of small cars. The companies will also share engines and work together to create small commercial vans. To do this, Nissan and Renault will invest about $1.6 billion in Daimler who, in turn, will invest about $1.6 billion in Nissan and Renault. These investments will have a good pay-off. The two sides of the alliance estimate that they will each save about $2.7 billion in costs over the coming five years. This alliance creates new economies of scale for each side by increasing their productivity, as measured by units of input costs over units of output product. (See “Audio Tip #187: The Components of Productivity” on StrategyStreet.com.) In this case, they improve productivity by spreading fixed cost activity such as design of new products over more sales output.

In analyzing several thousand cost reduction approaches, which companies have employed over the last twenty-five years, we have seen two basic approaches to the task of increasing the output over which fixed costs investments are used. First, the company may acquire a similar organization to spread fixed costs over more units of sales. Second, the company may form an alliance of some kind to spread these fixed costs over more sales output. This small car alliance is an example of the second approach. In turn, we have identified three ways that companies pursue this second approach of spreading fixed cost. First, the companies may use their fixed cost with competitors who employ outsourcing. Second, the companies may combine fixed cost with competitors into separate businesses. Third, the company may use its fixed cost with new customer segments by turning some of their cost centers into profit centers. This small car alliance is an example of the second of these techniques, combining fixed costs with competitors into separate businesses.

Other examples where companies have employed this cost management approach include Sony and Sharp partnering in the flat panel TV business two years ago. Sony invested in Sharp’s plant to make LCDs. This gave Sony the option of buying the panels for its TVs while Sharp reduced the investment burden for panel production. In another example, General Mills and Land O’Lakes combined their distribution networks, improving their scale economies. In this later case, the companies were not direct competitors as are the companies in the small auto alliance.

You may find many more cost management concepts and examples in StrategyStreet.com/Improve/Costs.

Posted 4/28/10

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