LESSER GIANT General Motors' stock market value is now below several Philadelphia area companies.

Posted: July 20, 2008

Poor, shrunken General Motors.

The American auto icon has fallen so far on Wall Street that several Philadelphia-area companies, in comparison, are looking like world-class corporate titans.

One is hip Philadelphia retailer Urban Outfitters Inc., whose recent value on the stock market - over $5 billion - nearly matched that of GM in recent weeks. GM gained significant ground last week after announcing a restructuring, but the company's total stock value, $7.5 billion, remains half of what it was in late 2007.

Urban Outfitters markets products with whimsical brands like "Fairytales are True" and "Sparkle and Fade." Sales to mostly younger women are growing 29 percent a year.

Half of its 10,000 employees work as part-timers. Its revenue last year was $1.5 billion.

The South Philly company wouldn't seem to be in the same business league as General Motors, a company with 13 percent of the global auto market and $181 billion in 2007 revenue.

But indeed, according to investors, it is.

The Pennsylvania chocolatier Hershey Co., which has annual revenue of about $5 billion, and whose chocolate bar with almonds is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, has a stock-market value of $8 billion - bigger than GM.

Other Philadelphia-area companies - Campbell Soup Co., Rohm & Haas Co., Tyco Electronics and Comcast Corp. - are significantly more valuable than GM as soaring oil prices and a recessionary economy have beaten down shares in the nation's largest domestic automaker.

On Tuesday, seeking to calm speculation that the company might be forced to eventually seek bankruptcy protection, the automaker's top executive announced several steps to slow its cash burn: eliminate the cash dividend, cancel retiree health benefits, and eliminate thousands more jobs.

"As I've said from the start, our goal is not just to change GM's bottom line from red to black, our goal is to change GM for the long haul," said chief executive officer Rick Wagoner.

The immediate goal, analysts said, was to stay solvent beyond 2009.

GM shares revved through the week. Before Tuesday, the difference in stock-market value between GM and Urban Outfitters was hovering between $300 million and $500 million. But by Friday, GM had closed with a stock-market value, or market capitalization, of $7.5 billion, compared with Urban Outfitters' market cap of $5.4 billion. This is what it would take for a corporate raider or private-equity investor to buy all the stock in the companies.

Still, these are deflated times for GM, which peaked in market cap at about $47 billion in 1998, according to Bloomberg. To put its recent decline in context, let's wander Pennsylvania, South Jersey and Delaware - a land of towering giants when compared to the ailing automaker.

Dow Chemical this month agreed to purchase Rohm & Haas Co., the specialty chemical maker located on Independence Mall, for about $15 billion in cash - about twice the value of General Motors.

In Camden there's Campbell Soup Co., whose $13.1 billion in market cap is 77 percent higher than GM's.

Tyco Electronics, in the western suburbs, weighs in at $17.4 billion in stock-market value.

In Wilmington, Dupont Co.'s $39.8 billion is over five times GM's stock-market value.

And then there's the gorilla in our midst: Center City's Comcast Corp. At $59.9 billion in stock-market value, the pay-TV and Internet company is roughly eight times more valuable than General Motors.

For Philadelphia boosters these market caps don't signify a muscling-up of the region's companies, but an enfeebling of a Rust Belt icon.

A book, The End of Detroit, published in 2003, explored problems at GM, Chrysler and Ford. Author Micheline Maynard discussed the U.S. carmakers' inability to focus on quality and failure to consistently deliver sedans that excited American consumers, such as Honda's Accord or Toyota's Camry.

Chrysler is privately owned, and Ford has suffered, similar to GM, from high oil prices and the waning popularity of big vehicles. Ford's market cap on Friday was $12.2 billion.

U.S. auto executives failed to lead their companies out of danger, said V.K. Narayanan, a Drexel University business professor for strategy and entrepreneurship. "I will not condone the lack of cars. It's not like we don't have the know-how. We have the know-how. What we have not seen is reasonable leadership coming from the domestic auto industry," he said.

It would be a mistake, he said, if the U.S. lost its domestic auto industry, which supports hundreds of thousands of jobs and engineering innovation. "GM should transform itself," Narayanan said. "I'm hoping it will happen. It's not a strategy. It's a hope."

Last year, General Motors lost $39 billion on its $181 billion in sales. The losses were largely attributed to deferred taxes. The company sold 9.4 million vehicles around the world. Its share of the U.S vehicle market fell to 19.4 percent in 2007 from 20.7 percent in 2006 and 22.6 percent in 2005, according to its regulatory filings.

William Madway, visiting instructor in marketing and business law at Villanova School of Business, said a big problem is GM's many brands - Chevy, Cadillac, Pontiac, Buick, GMC, Saturn, Hummer and Saab. GM has said it could dispose of the gas-gulping Hummer.

Madway said he recently gave a Toyota dealership a $1,000 deposit to get on a list to purchase a gas-sipping Prius hybrid. "The biggest issue now is that no one wants their vehicles," Madway said of GM. "It doesn't feel like they have been a pioneer in any way."

Peter McCausland, the chairman and chief executive officer of Airgas Inc. in Wayne ($4.9 billion market cap), sympathizes with GM's management, which had to negotiate labor contracts with the United Auto Workers.

He enumerated other challenges the domestic auto industry has faced:

Japanese automakers were game-changers. The cost of health care battered companies, most painfully those with large numbers of retirees. GM operated older factories that had to be modernized. The company does business in a nation that lacks a coherent energy policy. "We got sucked into cheap oil," McCausland said.

But no one said business was easy.

"We've faced our difficulties and addressed those core difficulties and learned from our mistakes," McCausland said of Airgas.

Contact staff writer Bob Fernandez at 215-854-5897 or bob.fernandez@phillynews.com.

The Detroit Free Press contributed to this report.

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