Ford Finds Growth Around the World

It was no surprise when Ford (NYS: F) reported solid sales gains in the U.S. in 2011. While its 11% year-over-year growth was slightly ahead of both the market average and analyst expectations, it trailed the more dramatic gains posted by some rivals.

One could argue that such incremental gains represented a bit of a disappointment after a year that saw two of the Blue Oval's biggest rivals, Toyota (NYS: TM) and Honda (NYS: HMC) , suffer major production losses in the wake of natural disasters in Asia. But the result was good enough to put Ford over 2 million vehicles sold in the U.S. for the first time since 2007, and the company's continued profits suggested that Ford's strategy of emphasizing margins over market share is a worthwhile one.

More to the point, Ford's continued focus on improving margins should mean that further incremental sales growth will lead to solid growth in profits over the longer haul. And increasingly, Ford will depend on overseas markets to drive that sales growth.

So how is Ford doing overseas? As we look toward Ford's fourth-quarter earnings report next week, it's worth checking out Ford's 2011 sales results in other key markets around the world.

Incremental gains (mostly) in key markets
For the most part, 2011 was a pretty good year for Ford in its traditional overseas strongholds -- and a year of continued strong growth in regions that are relatively new turf for the Blue Oval:

China. While Ford's sales numbers in the Middle Kingdom are dwarfed by those posted by archrival General Motors (NYS: GM) , a longtime China stalwart, the company is investing heavily to expand its production in the country and hopes to be among the leaders by mid-decade. Ford did manage to move more than half a million vehicles in China in 2011, an increase of 7% over strong 2010 results. That's less than a quarter of GM's sales, but Ford's sales growth outpaced the overall market and puts the Blue Oval on track for a solid year in 2012.

Europe. Long a trouble spot for Ford (and General Motors), Europe brings high fixed costs and economic headwinds that have hammered the company's margins and profits for several quarters. Still, Ford managed to eke out a 2.4% sales gain in the region in 2011, while holding its second-place position in Western Europe and making solid gains in Turkey and Germany, Europe's largest market. Strong sales of the Fiesta, the Focus, and Ford's small commercial Transit vans paced the automaker's efforts in the region.

India. Ford sold 96,270 vehicles in India in 2011, a 15% increase over last year's strong results, and produced over 22,000 more for export (three times 2010's total). While Ford's India sales are dwarfed by those posted by market leaders Maruti Suzuki and Tata Motors (NYS: TTM) -- Tata sold almost 30,000 vehicles in December alone -- its 2011 growth outpaced the overall market's sluggish 4.3% gain. The high point was the strong sales of Ford's Figo small car, which, like Toyota'sEtios, was developed for the India market, and which is now being exported from Ford's Chennai plant to 32 countries.

Russia. While the Russian auto market is "emerging" at a slower pace than China's, Ford has made a big bet on Russia and done well there. Its joint venture with Sollers saw a 30% sales gain in 2011, with almost 120,000 vehicles sold, Ford's best year in Russia since 2007. About two-thirds of those vehicles were copies of Ford's Focus compact, which is produced locally in a large factory near St. Petersburg. The Mondeo, Ford's European midsize sedan, which is also produced locally, accounted for much of the rest.

Brazil. Ford has long had a presence in what has become the world's fourth-biggest car market, but 2011 saw a decline from 2010's record-setting sales levels as the Blue Oval moved to overhaul its product line in the country. Ford sold just over 314,000 vehicles in Brazil in 2011, down from almost 364,000 in 2010, a drop that pushed its market share from more than 10% to 9.2% at year's end.

Of course, sales figures tell only part of the story. We know that margins are likely to be thin in Europe, where an incentives war has been brewing, and that the brunt of Ford's profits will continue to come from the good old U.S. of A., but how profitable are Ford's other regions right now? We'll learn much more during next week's earnings call.

I'll also be listening for details of Ford's upcoming dividend payment during that call, its first payment to shareholders since September 2006. That dividend should arrive in March -- but you don't have to wait to put the power of reinvested dividends to work in your portfolio. In a special new report, Motley Fool analysts have identified "11 Rock-Solid Dividend Stocks," all great additions to a long-term investor's portfolio. This new report is completely free for Fool readers, but only for a limited time, so get instant access now.

At the time thisarticle was published Fool contributorJohn Rosevearowns shares of Ford and General Motors. You can follow his auto-related musings on Twitter, where he goes by@jrosevear. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Ford and General Motors, as well as creating a synthetic long position in Ford. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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