LONDON -- Jaguar Land Rover is battling a saturated market in China as the automaker attempts to steady a struggling sales operation that triggered a $4 billion writedown in February, CEO Ralf Speth said.
Automakers are "fighting for volume" after the world's biggest automotive market posted its first annual slide in demand in more than two decades, Speth said in an interview Wednesday. That makes it all the more vital that JLR establish its products at the top end of the market, he said.
"We want do it in the premium business way," he said. "The market is going down, but last year the premium market was nevertheless stable."
The company is overhauling its Chinese dealer network because it provides insufficient exposure to the country's biggest cities. The February writedown pushed JLR owner Tata Motors to a record loss.
Speth said Wednesday that Tata will provide an update when it reports results Monday, but that there is no quick fix for the issue, and he is not prepared to make unlimited sacrifices to stoke volume.
"Dealer networks don't change at the push of a button," he said on the sidelines of a Financial Times conference in London. "We do not want to push vehicles in the market then have huge stocks that get older and older. We don't run for the sake of running. We want to have profit, not just volume."
JLR's China sales fell more than a third in the nine months through December and have continued to slide, declining 46 percent last month while the country's car retail market as a whole shrank 17 percent. JLR's business in China has ben hit becasue of persistent woes with reliability and dependability.
The company is cutting 5,000 jobs as part of a 2.5 billion-pound ($3.2 billion) savings plan as demand is also hurt by confusion around Brexit and a UK clampdown on diesel autos.
Adding to the turmoil, the company is reportedly being targeted for takeover by PSA Group. Speth said he has not spoken with PSA boss Carlos Tavares about any transaction, and cannot confirm whether there have been any discussions between Tata and PSA.
"Car companies always talk about technical things or whatever," he said. "We are talking to everybody. I definitely cannot speak for Tata. I'm a normal employee in this empire and therefore I cannot make a statement."
JLR is also streamlining its commercial policies in China to help compensate for retailers' losses, and launching extensive on-site training programs to improve the customer experience.
The sales decline is being exacerbated by the China-U.S. trade war, according to Speth, who said he hoped the "geopolitical issues between America and China can be resolved quickly."
JLR can thrive as a UK business with its manufacturing base in the country, including electric vehicles, Speth said. He said measures to secure economies of scale through partnerships with bigger companies may not be worthwhile if they mean surrendering control of products and strategy.
"Being small, being nimble is also an opportunity to be agile," he said. "You have the freedom to do all your own strategy in a fast way."