Chrysler Suicide Watch 26: Connect the Dots
Kids love to play connect the dots. When the dots are numbered sequentially (with a few outlining details thrown in to keep 'em focused), it's easy to do. When the numbers are missing, it's hard to see anything more than random points on a page. And so it is with Chrysler, an American automaker that's generated enough bloggable news during the last six months to keep Google News-alerted surfers away from their designated job for hours at a time. Even though only Chrysler's new owners know their real game plan, there's been enough new "dots" to form a recognizable pattern. What it reveals is a company on the cusp of a major revolution.
The first dot: DaimlerChrysler
dumping selling Chrysler. Several companies showed interest in buying Chrysler early on, but most industry analysts expected Canada's Magna Corporation to be a shoo-in. Magna had the balls; Chairman and founder Frank Stronach is the personification of unbridled ambition. Magna had Chrysler-specific auto building experience; they held the contract to assemble Chryslers and Jeeps in Europe and run the paint shop at the Jeep Wrangler plant in Toledo, Ohio. And Magna had the money.
But before the Chrysler deal went down, the automaker announced it was moving production of Euro-spec Chryslers from the Magna-Steyr plant in Austria to Chrysler's plant in Brampton, Ontario. Magna wasn't happy. The Canadian Autoworkers Union (CAW) loved it. Dot two.
Third dot: the private equity firm Cerberus came from nowhere to grab the golden ring. It was the union's turn to be displeased. United Auto Workers (UAW) president Ron Gettelfinger and CAW president Buzz Hargrove both suspected that Cerberus was about to "strip and flip" their meal ticket. They saw storm clouds gathering over Auburn Hills.
And yet, after just one meeting with the three-headed dog's masters, both union leaders did a complete 180. Gettelfinger said the sale of Chrysler to the private equity fund was in the "best interests of our members." Hargrove, who had said he was "pissed off" over the sale, suddenly decided "Chrysler is better off under Cerberus ownership than they would be under Daimler." Dot four.
Fifth dot: after taking over Chrysler, Cerberus revamped the company's upper management. Union-friendly CEO Tom Lasorda suddenly found himself shuffled aside to a vice president's position. Former Home Depot CEO Robert Nardelli took over as Chrysler CEO. Toyota's Jim Press moved in as co-vice president, to run sales and marketing. Both came from companies known for their decidedly anti-union stance, yet the UAW and CAW were both uncharacteristically quiet about their selection.
Then came dot six: negotiating a new UAW contract. In return for ponying-up a bunch of billions for a health care VEBA superfund, the UAW's leadership agreed on a contract radically different from the GM deal. The Chrysler agreement doesn't include job guarantees or commitments not to close or sell plants. If the UAW's members ratify this agreement, it leaves Cerberus free and clear to shut down whatever plants they choose, whenever they choose. OR… sell those plants to someone else.
Last month, Magna surprised everyone. The fiercely anti-union company suddenly opened its plants to the CAW, inviting them to organize their employees. Owner Frank Stronach said the company "would embrace the union" under the "framework of fairness." He claimed an epiphany: Magna and unions need to work together to save North American auto industry jobs and create new employment. Dot seven.
Dot eight: Chrysler has announced it's [finally] ready to trim models across all three brands. The executions could mean a Chrysler plant now building several variations of one model for three divisions would build one model for one division. Although the divisions might share some components (e.g. engines or transmissions), the new regime will tie a specific production facility to a specific brand.
Connect the dots. As we predicted when Cerberus assumed control of Chrysler, the money men are getting ready to sell part or all of Chrysler to Magna, or, at the least, outsource production to them. This they can do because Chrysler’s unions have been well and truly appeased, paid off in billions and granted access to Magna’s expanding worldwide empire. This they will do because they’re a private equity firm that has always preferred right-now cash cows to long-term plays.
Magna is also on board because, well, it’s what Frank wanted then, it’s what Frank wants now and Frank’s got the cash to do the deal. Ah, but is this a picture of resurgent automaker? Nope. It’s an abstract image; one that allows both artist and onlookers to see what they want to see. One thing’s for sure: it's still very much a work in progress.
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