Ford has hired a new senior executive to turn around its beleaguered business in the world’s biggest auto market.
The company said in a statement Wednesday that it had appointed industry veteran Anning Chen to run its operations in China, where sales have plunged in recent months. The position had been vacant since the start of the year, when Ford’s (F) former China CEO quit abruptly.
Chen was previously CEO of Chery Automobile, a Chinese state-owned company, and chairman of Chery Jaguar Land Rover, a joint venture with the British automaker. He also worked at Ford earlier in his 25-year career.
Ford has endured a torrid time in China. In September, its sales in the country nosedived more than 40% compared with the same month a year earlier. Over the first three quarters of the year, its total sales in China are down almost a third.
“China was never treated by Ford HQ as a ‘do or die’ market,” said Tu Le, founder of consulting firm Sino Auto Insights.
One of Ford’s big problems in the world’s second largest economy is that its lineup of vehicles in China is old and drivers are losing interest.
The company hasn’t introduced any new models in the Chinese market for more than a year and isn’t due to do so until the middle of next year, according to analysts. Like most foreign car makers, the lion’s share of Ford’s China sales are through a joint venture with a local company.
“Success in China is critical as we reposition our global business for long-term success,” Ford CEO Jim Hackett said in the statement Wednesday.
Chen will have more clout than his predecessors. Ford said its China operations will become a standalone business that reports directly into the company’s headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, rather than to the head of the Asia-Pacific region.
This will enable “greater focus on the market, faster decision making and increased Chinese leadership within the company,” it said.
Chinese market getting ugly
Ford is having to contend with a wider slowdown in the Chinese market, which for years has been a big source of growth for Western automakers.
China is the biggest market for some big brands, including General Motors (GM) and Volkswagen (VLKAF). It accounts for a much smaller part of Ford’s business: less than a fifth of the company’s global vehicle sales came from China last year.
To grab a bigger share of the Chinese market, Ford needs to increase its production capacity quickly, according to Le, the auto analyst.
“Ford’s survival is dependent on its China business growing and thriving,” he said.
The Chinese market has gotten a lot tougher this year as the wider economy has lost momentum and a trade war with the United States has ramped up. Brands including GM, VW and Jaguar Land Rover have all seen their Chinese sales fall in recent months.
Chinese consumers have also been deterred from splashing out on new cars by the rout in China’s stock market, rising gas prices, and new emissions standards set to come in next year, according to analysts.