Harder going forecast for auto industry

There's a rough road ahead for the local auto industry, from retailers to factory workers at the General Motors Corp. minivan plant on Broening Highway.

That was the message yesterday from a well-known automotive analyst, Maryann N. Keller, during a visit to Baltimore to address an automotive seminar sponsored by Walpert, Smullian & Blumenthal, a local accounting and management consultant company.


When asked about the future of GM's plant in Baltimore, which could fall victim to a corporate plan to close 21 plants and eliminate 74,000 jobs by 1995, Ms. Keller, who is managing director of Furman Selz Inc. in New York City, was somewhat less than optimistic.

While saying she does not know what's ahead for the local plant, she noted that Baltimore's failure to meet federal clean-air standardsdoes not bode well for the city's largest manufacturing employer and its 3,600 workers.


She said that factory emissions have played key roles in GM and Ford Motor Co. decisions to close plants in California and other parts of the country.

"Even if [the GM plant in] Baltimore survives," she said, "it will certainly be tough on everybody in the Baltimore factory."

Ms. Keller predicted that the GM of the future would not be as generous as in the past or capable of paying as much in wages and benefits. "It just simply can't afford to," she said.

GM has said that the Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari minivans made here are due for a major overhaul for the 1996-1997 model year. That major change opens the door for the company to shift production to a plant elsewhere, perhaps to a less polluted region where GM would have less difficulty meeting emission standards.

The automaker has said that Baltimore "is high on the list of contenders" to build the restyled van, but noted that it would also be looking at other sites for the work.

Jacob J. Cohen, another speaker on the program, told the approximately 150 dealers attending yesterday's session at the BWI Marriott Hotel that they would never again see a return to an annual sales level of 16 million cars and trucks nationwide for all carmakers, which was last posted in 1986.

Mr. Cohen, the partner in charge of Walpert, Smullian & $l Blumenthal's automotive industry services group, said lackluster new-car sales would take its toll on the number of dealerships in the state.

Four years ago, he said, there were about 400 new-car dealerships in Maryland. Today, their ranks have dropped to 325, and he said he expects many more dealers to disappear in coming years before the industry stabilizes at about 250 outlets.


Mr. Cohen said the surviving dealers would be the ones who shift the focus of their business from just selling new cars to concentrating more on the "back end" part of the business, including service, body shop, parts and used-car sales.