The fact that General Motors has just posted its first quarterly profit in three years is undeniably good news for a battered company attempting to get back on its feet.
The company seems to be making progress faster than expected.
The governance and management of New GM under Ed Whitacre seems to move with a purpose and speed that contrasts sharply with what many saw as a complacent culture, lacking agility, that produced a decades-long decline for GM that culminated in bankruptcy.
That view is perhaps a little disingenuous to those who found themselves in the hot seats when the sky fell in. Rick Wagoner was moving the ship in the right direction before the economic storm hit in late 2008: North American production capacity was already being cut; GM was already doing well in China; Chevrolet had already been successfully established as a new global brand; and European operations had already seen big cost reductions.
But it has probably taken the full shock of the ensuing economic storm and the change of guard at the top to really cement the idea in many minds that GM has changed and changed for the better.
The new guard at GM have been helped by an improving situation in the US market – and the arrival of some good product that has helped to lift US sales over the low-points of last year. The improving US position is not as impressive as at Ford and axed brands will mean lower share, but the underlying siituation for GM is clearly much improved.
As a new leaner GM with fewer brands surveys the automotive landscape, there’s a need for feet to stay firmly on the ground. A few more quarters of good results will be needed to convince potential investors that investing in GM really makes sense after the trauma of recent history.
Europe is still losing money and aid from the German government for Opel is not yet signed off. Achieving break-even in Europe in 2011 will be some challenge given that the car market will be falling this year with little improvement expected in 2011, the sovereign debt crisis looming large in the background.
And the US vehicle market is also recovering from a low base with concerns over the state of the US economy persisting. It will remain a highly competitive environment for all, even if volumes are up.
China, many are now saying, is facing a market slowdown of uncertain magnitude. And just how well placed is GM to react to industry-wide pressures on commodity prices and a higher oil price? Better or worse than its main rivals?
The trick for GM will be to meet these industrial challenges and do that without, say, going down the old-style path of unprofitable incentives in North America. GM has to go from being seen as one of the structurally weakest global OEMs to being a fundamentally relatively strong one. It could yet happen.
If it does it will entail the full transformation of North American operations from almost lethally damaging millstone around the corporate neck to an underlying competitive plus, integrated into a cohesive global company that can demonstrate continued success.
And an IPO that means the US government is off the board is a prerequisite to a viable future, the company able to turn a page to a new chapter. But we are not quite at that new chapter yet.