What would Blackstone do with Chrysler?
NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Many private equity firms like to brag that the
operating expertise they bring to their acquisitions can restore a company's
health. But if the expected Blackstone bid for DaimlerChrysler's ailing U.S.
auto unit is successful, the company seems likely to make a trip to the chop
No Blackstone bid has been announced, but industry analysts expect the
leading private equity firm to make a multibillion play for Chrysler.
Is Cerberus bidding for Chrysler?
What's the attraction? Yes, car sales are soaring worldwide, but the U.S.
auto business is notoriously plagued by high labor costs, hard-to-fund
pension promises, sinking customer satisfaction and bad bets on SUVs and
gas-guzzling trucks. For that reason, many analysts expect that Blackstone
and its partner in the deal, Centerbridge Capital, would break up the
business as fast as possible, just as the top buyout firm did after it took
Equity Office Partners (EOP) private earlier this year.
"The probability of that is 100%, the question is to what extent," says
Matthew Rhodes-Kropf, a professor of finance at Columbia Business School.
"Chrysler is not doing well. It has a lot of union and healthcare problems.
What happens to companies when they're not doing well? They need discipline
and a firm like Blackstone will bring that, but it means that on the other
side something must be closed or changed around."
Private equity power list
In February, Blackstone paid a premium to beat out rival bidder Vornado
(Charts), raising the price more than 14% in the process. In order not get
stuck with a money-losing prize, it sold buildings at lightening speed,
unloading a clutch of properties to Macklowe the day the EOP deal closed.
More than $15 billion in properties were reportedly sold off by the end of
With rival bids for Chrysler on the table, a huge amount of firepower and a
will to win, Blackstone might well pay a high amount for an iconic car
company, with similar pressure to break it up fast. Representatives at
Blackstone and Centerbridge said they had no comment for this story.
"For Blackstone, it's all about the game. You buy an asset, and there's a
huge amount of value to be unlocked by repackaging the assets and finding
buyers," says Phillip Phan, a professor of management at Rensselaer
Polytechnic Institute. "There are really two ways to make money. One is by
cutting costs, rewriting pensions contracts, closing capacity and
outsourcing to Asia and Eastern Europe, where the auto sales growth is
anyway. Or you just sell off the assets and trim product lines."
Yet if the ultimate goal is to break the company up, why doesn't
DaimlerChrysler simply do that by itself? Private equity brings in money,
banking relationships and a will to make difficult labor choices that the
German parent could not make without upsetting operations in Europe. "In the
auto industry, Ford (Charts) and GM (Charts) will close down about a third
to 40% of capacity over the next two years. The way that union contracts are
negotiated in the industry, Chrysler should be able to go to the unions and
say, GM is closing down capacity, so that is on the table for us, too," says
Phan. "Daimler hasn't made announcements on the same scale because it would
have a massive impact on its union contracts in Germany."
Wall Street's man of the moment
Phan estimates that Chrysler has 15% to 20% more product line than they
need, including vehicles like big trucks and SUVs. He adds that industry
watchers think Chrysler should concentrate on lower margin, but bigger
markets, like compact and fuel-efficient cars. The Jeep brand would be the
most lucrative part of the business if a private equity firm broke up
Chrysler, says Kevin Tynan, an analyst with Argus Research.
Phan adds that in the case of a buyout, debt levels on Chrysler could reach
a point that the company would technically be insolvent. This would allow
the new owner to go to the government and ask it to take over pension
Such moves might not go down well with Chrysler's 84,000-strong workforce.
Buzz Hargrove, national president of the Canadian Auto Workers, says: "We've
had nothing but bad experiences with these leveraged buyout groups, or
private equity groups or whatever it is they call themselves these days.
It's the same wolf in sheep's clothing. They come in with very little money
of their own and a lot of money from someone else, and then cut and slash
and throw people out of work in order to make a lot of money for their small
group of investors."
If Blackstone pursues a slice-and-dice strategy, labor wouldn't be its only
headache. Compared with the other Big Three automakers, Chrysler does not
have as much to shed. Its finance unit is primarily for Chrysler auto loans,
while GMAC also had robust insurance and mortgage businesses that made it a
valuable standalone company. Moreover, GM and Ford have a lot of overlapping
product lines. If GM got rid of GMC trucks, it would still have Chevy. When
Ford got rid of Aston Martin, it still had Jaguar. "Chrysler works together
as a whole because there's not a lot of overlap in the different brands,"
says Tynan. "This could be a situation where the parts are more valuable as
"I have tried to live my life so that my family would love me and my friends
respect me. The others can do whatever the hell they please."