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By Katie Merx and David Welch

 

May 17 (Bloomberg) — General Motors Co. reported first- quarter net income of $865 million, helped by higher production and smaller discounts, as the maker of the GMC Terrain and the Chevrolet Equinox works toward an initial public offering.

Operating profit was $1.2 billion in the first three months of the year, and the company generated $1 billion in free cash flow, Detroit-based GM said today in a statement. Revenue rose 40 percent from the same period a year earlier to $31.5 billion.

Chief Executive Officer Ed Whitacre has said reporting a profit is a necessary milestone as the biggest U.S. automaker seeks freedom from government ownership. GM, which emerged from bankruptcy protection in July, is considering a return to the auto-lending business to make its offering more appealing to investors, people familiar with the plans said last week.

“The unfortunate process of bankruptcy is yielding positive results,” Rebecca Lindland, an analyst at IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Massachusetts, said today in an interview. “It certainly keeps them on track for an IPO.”

GM North America and the company’s international operations each had profits before interest and taxes of $1.2 billion, while the automaker had a $500 million loss in Europe.

GM’s 8.375 percent bonds due in July 2033 rose 2.125 cents to 37 cents on the dollar at 10:24 a.m. in New York, according to Trace, the bond-price reporting system of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. The debt was issued by predecessor General Motors Corp. and will convert into equity in the new GM.

Sustained Profitability

GM Chief Financial Officer Chris Liddell told reporters today that GM was making progress toward sustained profitability for the rest of the year, without providing specific numbers.

The most-recent quarter’s results were helped by traditionally strong production at the start of the year, Liddell said, adding that output may weaken in the coming quarters.

“This is a good, useful step on the road to the IPO,” Liddell told reporters today.

GM’s sales in the U.S. rose 16.8 percent to 475,253 vehicles in the first quarter from 406,770 a year earlier, according to researcher Autodata Corp. GM trimmed its U.S. customer discounts in the first quarter by an average of $230 per vehicle, or 6.7 percent, to $3,222, according to Autodata.

Production Gains

The automaker said it built 668,000 vehicles in North America, an 80 percent increase from the same months last year. GM will produce 2.7 million vehicles on the continent this year, a 44 percent gain from 2009, according to Michael Robinet, vice president of global forecasting for CSM Worldwide in Northville, Michigan.

“Some people didn’t expect them to make a profit,” Robinet said today in an interview. “If they are on track with respect to profit, than they can reinvest in product. That is critical in the auto industry.”

GM posted a fourth-quarter loss of $3.4 billion and used $1.9 billion in cash. For the third quarter, a period that began with the end of bankruptcy on July 10, GM said generated $3.3 billion in cash and lost $1.15 billion on what it called a managerial basis. It reported a net profit, including the company’s recapitalization.

Brands Cut

GM filed for protection from creditors on June 1, 2009, and emerged on July 10 with Whitacre, 68, as chairman. He took on the chief executive officer’s job in December and has shuffled management and cut brands to four from eight. The old General Motors Corp. had a $5.98 billion net loss in the first quarter of 2009.

The company has repaid $8.4 billion in U.S. and Canadian loans it assumed as it emerged from bankruptcy and is seeking to return to profit before offering shares publicly, allowing the U.S. to sell the 61 percent stake it acquired in the $50 billion bailout.

GM now has about $18.2 billion in debt and obligations, including $8.8 billion owed to the United Auto Workers retiree health care trust fund, Liddell said today.

“There is still a significant number of obligations,” Liddell said. “One of the relatively pleasant surprises coming in here was that our balance sheet is relatively strong. I’d like to see the balance sheet a lot stronger.”

The U.S. will probably sell its GM stock over “a few years,” Liddell said in a Bloomberg Television interview.

Bank Talks

The U.S. Treasury is talking with banks including Greenhill & Co., Lazard Ltd. and Perella Weinberg Partners about advising the department on the company’s return to public trading, a person with direct knowledge of the matter said last week.

GM hasn’t issued any new debt since exiting bankruptcy and has no rating. The company and rival Ford Motor Co. will need profits and cash flow to attain investment-grade credit status, said Mark Oline, head of corporate ratings at Fitch Ratings in New York. Ford earned $2.1 billion in the first quarter.

GM has said it needs better performance from its Opel unit in Europe, the only regional unit to lose money in the quarter. Opel Chief Executive Officer Nick Reilly told the Tagesspiegel newspaper this month that sales in Western Europe won’t return to 2007 levels for at least five years.

GM decided to keep Opel in November after negotiating a deal to sell the Ruesselsheim, Germany-based unit to Canada’s Magna International Inc. and Russian lender OAO Sberbank.

Whitacre has retooled the company’s marketing arm, changing U.S. sales and marketing leadership three times since December. On May 5, he hired Nissan Motor Co.’s Joel Ewanick as vice president of marketing to replace Susan Docherty, who held the job for two months and will be reassigned.

Ewanick will be responsible for delivering more sales as the company devotes marketing resources to fewer brands. GM is focusing on Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac in the U.S., selling Saab and shutting down Saturn, Pontiac and Hummer.

To contact the reporters on this story: Katie Merx in Southfield, Michigan, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; David Welch in Southfield, Michigan, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..