Strong sales in the U.S. and China helped the carmaker turn a profit of $7.6 billion, beating its old record of $6.7 billion in 1997 during the pickup and SUV boom.
GM is a vastly different company than it was back then. It’s smaller, has less debt and its contract with the United Auto Workers is less costly. But it took a $49.5 billion government bailout and bankruptcy protection in 2009 to cut its bloated costs. The company earned huge a profit even though U.S. sales of cars and trucks were near an historic low of 12.8 million.
In 2012, GM expects to increase its revenue as global sales grow and it charges more for models.
Its ongoing effort to cut costs and take advantage of its global presence are also paying off. In the fourth quarter, costs fell by $500 million. It saved $100 million by cutting some of the dozens of advertising agencies and media managers it uses. It also saved $100 million by centralizing engineering.
“We will build on these results as we bring more new cars, crossovers and trucks to market,” CEO Daniel Akerson said.
GM’s stock price rose $1.70, or 4 percent, to $26.01 in early afternoon trading.
That’s good news for the U.S. government, which still owns 26.5 percent of the company and needs the stock price to rise significantly before it can recoup all the bailout money. The bailout and GM’s performance already are contentious issues in this year’s presidential campaign.
Still, problems emerged for GM late last year. Its fourth-quarter profit fell 8 percent and missed Wall Street expectations. Europe and South America reported losses. And sales growth in the U.S. slowed even as more Americans bought cars and trucks.
This year, GM expects to make less money per vehicle as the mix of sales shifts to cars from trucks, which have bigger sticker prices
Still, last year was a big success for the company.
Revenue rose 11 percent to $150 billion. Its per-share profit was $4.58. GM made the bulk of its income in North America, where its pretax profit totaled $7.2 billion. International Operations, which includes Asia, made $1.9 billion before taxes, but that was down.
GM sold 9.03 million cars and trucks around the world in 2011, up 7.6 percent from the year before. That helped it reclaim the title of world’s largest automaker from Toyota Motor Corp.
GM said 47,500 blue-collar workers in the U.S. will get $7,000 profit-sharing checks in March. The checks are based on the company’s North American performance and are a record for the company.
The government still owns 500 million shares of GM, which it got in exchange for the $49.5 billion bailout. Through earlier stock sales and loan repayments, the government has recouped about $22.3 billion of that money. The remaining shares would have to sell for around $53 each for the government to recoup the rest.