Is Ford Motor Company (F) Getting on Track in Europe?

Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F)‘s European sales numbers for February are in, and once again it’s an ugly result: The Blue Oval’s overall sales in the 19 markets it counts as “Europe” were down 19% over year-ago totals for the month.

That doesn’t compare well with the overall industry’s 11.4% year-over-year decline. Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F) – for many years, Europe’s second-largest automaker — appears to be losing market-share ground in one of its most important regional markets.

Ford Motor Company (F)But if you look very closely, there are some early hints that Ford’s European turnaround plans might be getting on track.

A silver lining* amid grim numbers?
It’s the nature of PR folks to look for the most positive way to frame tough news, and Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F)’s PR crew is no exception. So it’s no surprise that Monday’s press release featured this carefully parsed bit of optimism: “Ford passenger car retail market share in key European markets* rose 0.6 percentage points, to 7.2%.”

You know it’s getting tough for Ford in Europe when the only good news they’ve got comes with an asterisk.

In this case, though, the asterisk links to a note saying that “key European markets” include the U.K., Germany, France, Italy, and Spain. Those four countries together represent about 80% of Ford’s total sales volume in its 19 European markets.

Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F) did have some less carefully parsed high points to, er, point out. The all-new Kuga SUV (a twin of the U.S. market’s Ford Escape) and just-updated Fiesta subcompact are both doing well, with orders up 27% and 18%, respectively, over year-ago numbers.

Ford of Europe vice president Roelant de Waard said in a statement that the company is reducing sales to daily rental fleets and other low-margin business, instead choosing to focus on increasing retail sales and market share. That’s the right long-term strategy, preserving Ford’s per-sale margins and pricing power, but it will make the Blue Oval’s sales numbers look ugly for a while when compared to some of its rivals.

Settling a labor dispute that cost Ford some sales
Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F) also announced, late last week, that it had come to an agreement with workers who had been staging protests at its factory in Genk, Belgium, and at some of the factory’s suppliers. Workers have been concerned about Ford’s decision to close the Genk plant after 2014, part of a comprehensive turnaround plan aimed at returning Ford’s money-losing European operation to profitability by mid-decade.

The Genk factory builds the Mondeo mid-sized sedan as well as the S-MAX and Galaxy minivans. Production had been essentially halted since the closure was announced in October of last year. Supplies of all three had run short over the last couple of months, a factor that has weighed on Ford’s recent European sales results, de Waard said.