A recent wave of U.S. takeovers in the European interior trim business makes it appear that Americans are monopolizing growth in the sector. But changes under way at French-owned Sommer Allibert group show that some Europeans also are riding the growth wave and offering competitive interior systems.
Sommer Allibert SA of Nan-terre, France, operates more than 30 plants in Europe making automotive molded plastic parts, door panels, molded carpets and acoustic products. The company supplies interior systems to several European automakers.
However, Sommer Allibert does not think carmakers are moving to interior modules fast enough.
``Changes are only made with new models,'' said Juergen Kaziur, a director of Sommer Allibert Industrie AG, the group's German subsidiary.
Still, business is growing, and Kaziur said the company has been surprised at the speed with which some makers are adopting cockpit modules.
Sommer Allibert makes cockpit systems for the Volkswagen Polo, and expects sales to increase as Polo production hits its planned peak this summer.
The German subsidiary, based in Frankfurt, controls all of Som-mer Allibert's automotive operations outside France.
Last year, Sommer Allibert SA planned to consolidate all 24 auto component sites under the German unit, including those of the French parent, as part of a plan to raise capital. The German company is traded publicly.
However, the plan was dropped in November when share prices of French suppliers came under pressure because of falling French car production.
Still, the German unit has made a number of strategic alliances since early 1995 to speed growth:
In February 1995 it formed a 50-50 joint venture in the United Kingdom with Masland Corp. of Carlisle, Pa. The partners supply interior modules primarily to Nissan's plant in Sunderland, England. They plan to establish a second U.K. facility to supply Jaguar with interior modules for a future model.
In October 1995 it created a 50-50 joint venture with Siemens Automotive to integrate instrument panels into cockpit modules. The venture plans two production units - one in the Czech Republic to supply cockpits for the new Audi A3-based Skoda due next year, the other to supply Volkswagen models in Wolfsburg, Germany.
In January it acquired the Mercedes-Benz plastic parts production facility in Woerth, Germany. Sommer Allibert is relocating its development center in Germany to Woerth to build on the expertise of the former Mercedes-Benz specialists.
The new ventures are intended to accelerate growth in the next two years. Sommer Allibert Industrie AG expects to increase sales to 1.8 billion deutsche marks ($1.18 billion) by 1997.
Sales in the automotive industry rose from DM749 million ($490.9 million) in 1994 to DM988 million ($647.5 million) in 1995.
Growth has been aided by new plants in Portugal and the United States. In Portugal, Sommer All-ibert's Palmela plant supplies Ford and Volkswagen's new Auto-Europa minivan joint venture.
In the United States, Sommer Allibert supplies BMW from a joint venture in Greenville, S.C., with Japanese instrument panel supplier Inoac. A plant in Kansas City, Mo., supplies painted bump-ers to General Motors.
Sommer Allibert also expects to see growth accelerate through deals to supply interior parts on new models in Europe. Among them are the planned VW sub-Polo model, code-named EA420.