PARIS - French supplier Sommer Allibert SA's instrument panel business is booming, thanks to major new contracts from Renault SA.
The company will be a key supplier to Renault's Megane replacement, code-named W84 and scheduled for launch in 2002.
'We will be completely in charge of the new Megane's cockpit, and that includes its design,' said Jean-Michel Elter, Sommer Alli-bert's executive vice president for automotive operations.
Sommer Allibert also will provide the instrument panels and door panels for the Laguna, Safrane and Espace replacements. All will be based on the same platform and built in Renault's Sandouville plant, near Le Havre, France. Sommer Allibert also will supply bumpers for the Espace.
The new Laguna goes on sale next year, and the Safrane and Espace successors will appear in 2001.
LOOKING TO EXPAND
But Sommer Allibert is looking beyond its domestic market. Elter said growth already is being fueled by major contracts from Volks-wagen. The company supplies instrument and door panels to the Golf and New Beetle.
Now Elter has made the United States a top priority.
'It's a major concern,' he said. 'We must be present in the U.S. market. North America currently accounts for 6 percent of our sales. We want to increase that to 20 percent within two years.'
Sommer Allibert has linked up with Meritor Automotive Inc. to develop door panels. Meritor specializes in door mechanisms. The first joint project is under way for Ford of Europe.
Last year, Sommer Allibert opened a technical center in Detroit. It currently has 50 employees, and its staff is expected to grow in the near future.
However, Sommer Allibert's U.S. ambitions recently suffered a setback. It shut its plant in Kansas City, Kan., which it had set up five years ago to supply bumpers to General Motors.
Sommer Allibert Chairman Marc Assa said the factory lost $20 million to $30 million annually for the past three years.
'We experienced technical and pricing problems,' he said. The plant has just been sold to American Bumpers.
In North America, Sommer Allibert's automotive business now includes interior parts operations in Fountain Inn, S.C., and Puebla, Mexico.
The company also is targeting the Japanese market.
'We are ready to go to Japan,' said Elter. 'We are going to set up a development center near Tokyo. We are hoping to do business with Nissan.'
Sommer Allibert has links with Japanese plastic maker Inoac, which supplies Toyota and Nissan. Inoac is a partner in Sommer Allibert's Fountain Inn plant.
The company's automotive division, Sommer Allibert Industries had sales of $2.0 billion last year. Instrument panels made up 36 percent of that total, followed by door panels, 30 percent; carpets and interior trim, 24 percent; and bumpers, 10 percent.
In the first half of this year, the company reported sales of $1.1 billion, 6.8 percent more than the same period a year earlier.
For the whole year, the company expects at least a 6 percent increase in sales, Assa said.
Sommer Allibert Siemens, a joint venture with Germany's Siemens AG, provides the focal point for the company's instrument panel module business.
The joint venture will have sales of $166 million this year, said Elter. That will rise to $415 million next year, and the company plans to hit sales of $1.2 billion by 2003.