MILAN (Reuters) - After years of moving production to Asia, some European companies are following the example of their U.S. counterparts and coming home.
Decisions by the likes of Italian leather goods brand Piquadro SpA and battery maker FIAMM SpA to boost production at home do not mark a reversal of the "off-shoring" phenomenon that has shaped global business for two decades.
But companies are tiptoeing back to their home regions, driven by rising salaries in China that are eating away at the profit margins that once lured them abroad. They are weighing the still lower but climbing manufacturing costs abroad against the difficulty of overseeing production far from home, plus the cost and time taken to get goods to Western markets.
"Reshoring" is being led by clothing, footwear and electronics companies, partly because they are rediscovering the cachet of the "Made in Europe" label. But in Spain, for example, depressed wage levels since the euro zone crisis have also prompted foreign car firms to open production lines there.
A PricewaterhouseCoopers survey of 384 euro zone non-financial companies last month found almost 60 percent had reshored some operations, mainly production, over the past year, against 55 percent which had done the opposite. Italy topped the reshoring list with 44 companies, while Ireland, Germany and Spain also featured prominently.
Luciano Fratocchi, a professor of management and engineering at Italy's L'Aquila University, said reshoring has become part of companies' survival strategies since the economic crisis.
Many Italian firms have reduced or overhauled their production lines because of falling demand, concentrating their remaining manufacturing closer to target markets.
Of the around 450 relocations analysed by Fratocchi since 2007, Italy has accounted for roughly a fifth, second only to the United States which had the lion's share with nearly half.
In Spain, trade unions have accepted flexible working practices and salary freezes due to high unemployment, encouraging companies such as Ford Motor Co and PSA Peugeot Citroen SA to open assembly lines.
The trend has affected even countries which weathered the crisis relatively well. German mid-sized companies like household goods brand Fackelmann and chainsaw maker Stihl have also reshored production. High-end teddy bear maker Steiff announced in 2008 that it was returning production from China because it had quality problems and transport took too long.
Often, however, rising wages in Asia are the main factor. According to consulting firm AlixPartners, official data show China's average wages in manufacturing rose 364 percent between 2004 and 2014, albeit from a far lower base than in Europe.
The biggest narrowing of the wage gap is in the United States. Boston Consulting Group (BCG) said manufacturing costs in China are only 4 percent below those in the United States, compared with 14 percent in 2004.
Italian wages have risen steadily over the past decade, despite periodic recessions, and overall manufacturing costs remain almost 30 percent higher than in China, according to BCG.
Piquadro Chief Executive Marco Palmieri says the average monthly salary of the firm's Italian factory workers is five times the Chinese level. But this gap was around 16 times in 2008, while executive pay is now the same in both countries.
Piquadro's Italian production is about a third more costly than at its Chinese factories. But Palmieri says this is partly offset by high transport costs from Asia and import duties.
Shipping from China also takes more time, a handicap for fashion companies whose customers want the latest products fast. Piquadro therefore decided 1-1/2 years ago to make its Sartoria line of bags near Pisa, close to its leather suppliers.
"Chinese factories are designed to handle large volumes: we increasingly need smaller volumes of a much larger variety of products. And we're also under pressure to reduce the time-to-market of our products," Palmieri says, adding that the "Made in Italy" label is a plus for his higher-end bags.
While fashion companies form the bulk of those that have reshored to Italy, other producers are changing strategy too.
Car battery maker FIAMM shut one of its two plants in the Czech Republic five years ago and decided to keep open a factory in Avezzano, in Italy's central Abruzzo region hit by an earthquake in 2009, investing 30 million euros to upgrade it.
FIAMM Chief Executive Stefano Dolcetta said high staff turnover was a problem in the Czech Republic. Productivity was low and the number of defective items high.
In Avezzano, even after a 20 percent cut agreed with trade unions, hourly labor costs are 19 euros ($24), compared with 5 euros in the Czech Republic. Still, Dolcetta says higher productivity and fewer discarded items make up half the gap.
"Many have offshored production only to discover how difficult it can be to run a plant that's far away," he said.
Additional reporting by Maria Sheahan in Frankfurt, Gavin Jones in Rome, Silvia Ognibene in Florence, editing by Alessandra Galloni and David Stamp