For many big suppliers, profits are back even if volume isn't

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- As automotive suppliers gather for the CAR Management Briefing Seminars here this week, they're feeling pretty good. Profits are back, even if volume isn't as high as it once was.

A who's who of suppliers has reported strong profits for the quarter ended June 30: American Axle, BorgWarner, Dana, Valeo, Continental, Michelin… The list goes on.

Let's look at one: the world's largest supplier, Denso.

Last year, tumbling vehicle sales in Japan and North America brought losses that pulled the entire company deeply into the red.

But in the latest quarter, Denso was firing on all cylinders. North America and Japan were in the black. In Europe, higher sales of diesel-engine components more than offset lower vehicle volumes at the end of various governments' cash-for-clunkers-style programs, pushing profits up.

And China! Roaring sales there brought profits for the Asia and Oceania region that were more than twice those in North America and Europe combined.

Denso's operating results swung to a profit of 70.66 billion yen ($798.6 million) from a loss of $171.7 million in the year-earlier quarter. That's almost a billion-dollar swing in one quarter.

Sales rose 37 percent from the year-earlier quarter to $9.07 billion. Net profit also swung into the black from a year-earlier net loss.

But look beyond the one-year comparison. Forget 2009 – as most suppliers would like to – and compare the latest quarter to the same period in 2008.

Denso's sales were still 18 percent below the 2008 level. But operating profits were down just 5 percent. That's a huge improvement in profitability.

Not every supplier walking the halls of the Grand Traverse Resort this week will be doing as well as Denso. But I expect to see a lot more grins this year than last August.