Daimler may favour Magna for Chrysler
Unlike equity firms, Canadian parts maker has union backing
GINA CHON and STEPHEN POWER
05 April 2007
BERLIN -- DaimlerChrysler AG's criteria for a possible sale of its Chrysler division could help a bid by Canadian auto-parts supplier Magna International Inc., a company seen by some labor leaders and people inside the auto maker as more interested than private-equity buyers in a long-term strategy for the unit.
Speaking at the company's annual shareholders meeting in Berlin, DaimlerChrysler Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche confirmed the company is in talks with would-be buyers, and for the first time he outlined the priorities that will guide the company in deciding what to do with its U.S. division.
Among them: making Chrysler "profitable on a sustainable basis" and finding "the best possible option for the employees." Company observers say that favors Magna, which is interested in boosting its auto-making operations and has gained some union support, over private-equity investors. A Magna spokeswoman declined to comment. But Mr. Zetsche declined to identify prospective buyers or give a time frame for deciding the matter. "So far, I am satisfied with the process," Mr. Zetsche said. "Everything is going according to plan."
The company is entertaining bids from interested parties, including private-equity firm Cerberus Capital Management LP, a tandem of Blackstone Group and Centerbridge Capital Partners, and Magna, according to people familiar with the matter.
DaimlerChrysler executive Rüdiger Grube, who is head of strategy, will meet with potential buyers next week in New York, a person familiar with the matter said. A DaimlerChrysler spokesman declined to comment, saying the company doesn't discuss the schedules of executives.
Mr. Zetsche's refusal to give more insight into the possible sale of Chrysler disappointed many who spoke at yesterday's meeting, which was attended by about 8,000 shareholders.
Since announcing on Feb. 14 that it is considering all strategic options for Chrysler, DaimlerChrysler has seen its share price rise more than 20%, reflecting the hopes of many investors that the company will dissolve the 1998 merger of Daimler-Benz AG and Chrysler Corp.
"This alleged marriage made in heaven turned out to be a complete failure. Many billions have been lost at the expense of us shareholders," said Hans Richard Schmitz, one of many shareholder representatives to address management. "I don't understand why you're so hesitant, Mr. Zetsche."
Yesterday in Frankfurt, DaimlerChrysler fell 1.5% to €61.10 ($81.46).
Despite their support for a sale of Chrysler Group, shareholders expressed concern that Chrysler would be sold too cheaply. Analysts have put the value of Chrysler at about $5 billion to $7 billion, compared with its purchase price of more than $35 billion. Mr. Zetsche said he understood the criticisms, but said the company must find the best solution for all parties involved.
Despite repeated cost-cutting and factory closures since the 1998 merger, Chrysler last year posted an operating loss of €1.12 billion. The company has blamed Chrysler's downturn largely on a faster-than-expected shift by many customers toward smaller, more-fuel-efficient vehicles, and away from the large sport-utility vehicles, pickup trucks and minivans that had accounted for about 70% of Chrysler's vehicle sales.
Although Chrysler has sharply cut back production of its largest vehicles, many investors faulted the company for not moving faster to counter the threat posed by Toyota Motor Corp. and other Asian makers of more-fuel-efficient car models.
The major challenges facing Magna include finding a partner for its Chrysler bid and persuading its other parts customers, General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co., to approve a deal that would make Magna both a supplier and an auto maker. People familiar with Magna's plans say the supplier is interested in building a U.S. business similar to the company's Austrian unit, Magna Steyr, which produces vehicles for BMW AG, DaimlerChrysler and GM on a contract basis. Private-equity firm Ripplewood Holdings LLC is among the companies discussing a Chrysler bid with Magna, said people familiar with the matter.
The president of the Canadian Auto Workers union, Buzz Hargrove, has said he would support Magna over a private-equity firm, citing the union's belief that management wants to build the business.
"Magna has proven its ability to support DaimlerChrysler through outsourcing some of the [auto maker's] full vehicle assembly, drivetrain and paint-shop operations," said Citigroup Inc. analyst Jon Rogers in a report. "Daimler could retain its technology and manufacturing-related ties with Chrysler under Magna's ownership."
On the other hand, Cerberus's bid may benefit from its hiring of Wolfgang Bernhard, Chrysler's former chief operating officer, as an adviser. Mr. Bernhard still has a good reputation among many at Chrysler, and was known as a hands-on executive.
Either way, shareholders and some company managers are growing restless. At Chrysler, executives are finding it difficult to fully implement the restructuring plan because of the uncertainty surrounding the company, people familiar with the matter said. Under that plan, announced in February, Chrysler will eliminate roughly 13,000 jobs and close an assembly plant.
Companies that supply parts to DaimlerChrysler also want to see a fast conclusion, citing difficulties in negotiations over future business because of the uncertainty. "They are already acting like they are divorced," said one person who does business with DaimlerChrysler. A Chrysler spokesman said company executives are reinforcing to their staffers that projects are continuing.
Despite the lack of specifics about his plan for Chrysler, Mr. Zetsche did confirm that -- no matter what his company decides to do -- it wants to maintain a long-term relationship with the U.S. unit.
Meanwhile, the Chrysler name itself easily survived a challenge. Only 1.6% of shareholders voted for a proposal to change DaimlerChrysler's name back to Daimler-Benz. Mr. Zetsche said there was no reason to change the name, because Chrysler was still a part of the company.
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