G.M. Takes a Back Seat to Tesla as America’s Most Valued Carmaker

G.M. Takes a Back Seat to Tesla as America’s Most Valued Carmaker

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While the rise of Tesla is based on prospects rather than profits, G.M. is being dogged by its checkered history, and a perception on Wall Street that its days as a dominant force are over.

G.M. is working hard to establish its own bona fides in automotive innovation, developing home-grown technology, acquiring or investing in Silicon Valley companies with promising approaches to self-driving or ride-hailing systems, and bringing a new electric car, the Chevrolet Bolt, to market.

“We are spending money on the future, whether it is in mobility, autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence or electrification,” said Mark L. Reuss, G.M.’s executive vice president for product development.

Yet the moves have so far failed to impress investors. The company’s shares are about 13 percent lower than they were when Mary T. Barra became chief executive in early 2014. And now an activist shareholder, the hedge fund Greenlight Capital, is pushing for a financial restructuring to unlock more of the company’s value.

G.M. is hardly alone in being outshone by Tesla among investors. A week earlier, another century-old Detroit icon, Ford Motor, fell behind Tesla in market value. And Fiat Chrysler, the parent of the third Detroit automaker, is so uncertain of its own future that it is actively seeking a merger partner.

But G.M. epitomizes both the frustration attached to the old American auto industry, and the determination to prove the skeptics wrong over the long term.

A G.M. spokesman played down the company’s loss of its title as the most valuable American automaker. “We have a track record of strong financial performance, with a great outlook for 2017,” the spokesman, Tom Henderson, said on Monday. “We’ll stay focused on delivering outstanding results, generating strong cash flows and investing capital where it will drive the highest returns.”

Still, G.M. executives know that investors worry whether the company owes its recent success mostly to a strong domestic market, buoyed by low oil prices that have indulged car buyers’ tastes for big, profitable sport utility vehicles — conditions that could be at risk if the economy falters.

“No one is going to believe we are for real until we successfully go through a downturn, and go through it well,” Mr. Reuss said at a company event last week. “We have to prove it.”

The all-electric Chevrolet Bolt EV at the Seoul Motor Show in Goyang, South Korea.

Credit
Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

The company has taken some drastic steps recently to shed the baggage of past decades, when its desire to be the world’s biggest automaker seemed to be its driving ambition.

G.M. has methodically scaled back its international operations by exiting the Russian market, ending manufacturing in Australia, and agreeing to sell off its long-struggling European division, maker of the venerable Opel and Vauxhall lines.

Moreover, the company has pared back incentives it once relied on to reduce bloated inventories, and eliminated factory shifts to better align production with demand.

The newfound discipline, along with a consistent flow of new models, has helped G.M. outperform the United States market so far this year. Through March, its sales are up slightly less than 1 percent, while the industry over all is down 1.5 percent.

The company is also aggressively updating older models and adding new ones. Its Buick division, for example, will take the wraps off new versions of its midsize Regal sedan and Enclave S.U.V. at media previews this week for the New York Auto Show. And the battery-powered Bolt has been on sale for months, while Tesla is still gearing up to produce its first mass-market electric car, the Model 3.

Yet despite the expectations that G.M. will increase earnings and sales this year, the company suffers by comparison with Tesla, which has rarely made a profit but has huge potential to grow.

Industry analysts see the race for stock market value as a competition tilted in favor of the little electric automaker that produces a fraction of the vehicles made by the big Detroit manufacturer.

“Tesla is viewed as a high-tech start-up driven by lots of stock speculation, while G.M. is an old-line industrial business with lots of institutional investors,” said Michelle Krebs, an analyst with the firm Autotrader.

The frustration with G.M.’s share price led Greenlight Capital, the hedge fund overseen by the billionaire investor David M. Einhorn, to propose creating two classes of stock — one that pays a dividend on the company’s core business, and a second that tracks its growth in ventures such as autonomous vehicles and ride-hailing services.

G.M.’s board rejected the proposal, but the hedge fund — which owns about 3 percent of the company’s stock, according to the automaker — has promised to take the fight to the annual meeting, likely to be held in June.

The meeting could become a forum for Ms. Barra to defend the company’s step-by-step strategy to innovate, while it continues to refine its older, core operations.

Mr. Reuss, who has worked for G.M. for more than 30 years, said the company was taking a long view of its destiny, while at the same time defending its market share in North America and China.

“Years ago, G.M. was fixated on the next quarter or the next year — and not the next 10 years,” he said.

For now, the company can ill afford to allow a stagnant American market, or its costly restructuring efforts overseas, to crimp its momentum. Even the smallest setback could depress its market value — and allow Tesla to pull further ahead.

“They have no choice but to keep focusing on what makes money, and that’s selling pickup trucks and S.U.V.s,” Ms. Krebs said.

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