Pointing the way for Chrysler

Kerkorian bid offers strategy for rebuilding ailing automaker

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April 17, 2007|By Tim Higgins | Tim Higgins,Detroit Free Press

DETROIT -- Kirk Kerkorian's $4.5 billion offer to buy the Chrysler Group does one thing no one else has done publicly: provide a road map for reviving the struggling U.S. automaker.

Auto industry observers say the ideas laid out, such as forming partnerships with labor unions, make sense and that other bidders should be proposing some of the same things.

"That's the road map the other three players have probably laid out in a similar fashion," analyst Joseph Phillippi of AutoTrends Consulting said.

What's unknown about the other bidders - especially the private equity groups - is whether they plan to keep Chrysler as one company and try to resuscitate it, or to cut it into pieces and sell the best parts for the highest price.

Top DaimlerChrysler AG officials met last week with parties interested in Chrysler, which lost $1.5 billion last year, but apparently excluded Kerkorian's Tracinda Corp.

Canadian auto supplier Magna International Inc. has confirmed its interest in Chrysler, and an analyst has said the company - teamed with a private equity partner - is offering as much as $4.7 billion.

A German newspaper reported that Magna executives will meet this week with DaimlerChrysler counterparts about Chrysler's future.

Private equity firms Blackstone Group and Cerberus Capital Management are supposedly in the hunt but have not commented on their intentions.

Kerkorian, who has had a storied past with Chrysler, is making the case that he is in it for the long haul, willing to invest money in the business and to wait several years for the automaker to turn itself around as a stand-alone company.

Kerkorian confidant Jerry York, former Chrysler chief financial officer, made the case for a Kerkorian bid in a letter to DaimlerChrysler Chairman Dieter Zetsche made public last week.

York noted that private ownership of Chrysler brings its advantages: "The right [meaning exceptionally patient] private ownership can do things that are difficult for both public companies and the wrong [meaning not so patient] private ownership."

Most notable is that Kerkorian has proposed an ownership stake for the United Auto Workers union, in exchange for concessions on the growing expense of health care.

York also talked about "necessary investments" required for product development. He wrote that Chrysler needs to more quickly renew its product line, improve its quality and gear its products toward so-called greener segments.

"It sounds wonderful," said Professor James Brock of the Farmer School of Business at Miami University in Ohio. "Sure, those are things that would be very important to do, but the issue is, and the question is ... are they going to actually be able to do anything along those lines?"

Kerkorian might be able to achieve those goals if he gained the support of Chrysler's management and workers, Brock said.

"If they could come in there and have all of these people on their side and have a sympathy momentum going, they might be able to get a lot done. In fact there may be a great relief to be out from under Daimler," Brock said.

Kerkorian hasn't been greeted with open arms. DaimlerChrysler executives in Germany reportedly do not look at his offer as favorably as others, in part because it is considered low.

"By stepping up and saying, `Here's what we think needs to be done and here is what we would like to do,' they are hoping to get back into the mainstream because so far they've been shut out," Phillippi said.

Beyond the Jeep brand, Phillippi said, there are few elements at Chrysler for a buyer to strip off and sell.

"This is obviously a buy, fix and take it public in five to seven years," he said.

Gerald Meyers, University of Michigan business professor and former chairman of American Motors Corp., said the letter was probably a strategy move by York to slow the process and give Tracinda a chance to enter the fray.

"I think it was a serious effort to get considered ... ," Meyers said. "They wanted to get it across that they are deep thinkers, that they are willing to approach the Chrysler problem in a broad, longer-range, thoughtful way."

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