April 5, 2007 in Business

Shareholders await Chrysler decision

Matt Moore Associated Press
Associated Press photo

DaimlerChrysler CEO Dieter Zetsche speaks during a general meeting Wednesday in Berlin. The company’s shareholders are frustrated by the lack of a decision on the Chrysler unit.
(Full-size photo)

BERLIN – Shareholders of DaimlerChrysler AG had hoped for a decision on the sale of the money-losing Chrysler unit, or at least news on when that might happen – but got neither Wednesday at a meeting marked by simmering tension over the automaker’s future.

The company’s board would acknowledge only that an outright sale was among the options being considered – despite an ongoing recovery plan to stem losses, cut 13,000 North American jobs and pare back production.

“As announced on Feb. 14, we are open to all options for future collaboration with Chrysler,” Chairman Dieter Zetsche told some 9,000 shareholders crammed inside Berlin’s exhibition center. “The statement is still true today.”

He said that the talks had been with “potential partners who have shown a clear interest,” and “so far, I am satisfied with the process. Everything is going according to plan.”

However, he would not say with whom the world’s fifth-largest automaker had been talking.

Shareholders – many of whom have criticized from the start the 1998 merger of Daimler-Benz and Chrysler Corp. in a $36 billion deal – were agitated about the lack of updates. The stock fell more than 1.3 percent in Frankfurt trading to 61.19 euros ($81.74).

Zetsche’s remarks “confirmed what we already knew,” said Stephen Cheetham, research analyst for European autos with Sanford C. Bernstein Ltd. in London.

Zetsche urged patience, noting that the situation is complex, and pledged that DaimlerChrysler would act in the best interests of the company, shareholders and workers.

“I know that many of you would like to have a progress report at this time,” he said. “That’s why I’d like to explain why we’re unable to say more at this point and why we decided to examine all the options.”

That failed to mollify shareholders, some of who clamored that the future of one of Germany’s most famous brands was at stake.

“You can do the job yourself, or a financial investor will come along and do the job for you,” said Hans-Richard Schmitz, who spoke on behalf of the shareholder advocate group DSW. He contended that, by holding onto Chrysler, the entire company could become a takeover target.

Another shareholder, Henning Gebhardt – the head of German equities at DWS, the fund management group for Deutsche Bank – said he appreciated the need for diligence but worried that the ultimate price could be too high.

“If Chrysler is finally led before the divorce court judge, we would be very grateful,” he said. “But what will happen if you don’t find a new groom or if he demands an inappropriately high dowry?”

Gebhardt’s reference to divorce was apt given that former Chairman Juergen Schrempp, who presided over the merger, had called it a marriage made in automobile heaven.

Chrysler has struggled as American buyers have flocked to more fuel-efficient vehicles.

“The crucial factor was the unforeseeable shift in demand to smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles which was triggered by increased gas prices in the U.S.,” Zetsche said.

The final straw for the marriage may have been the U.S. unit’s operating loss last year of $1.5 billion.

In a first tacit admission that a sale was being explored, Zetsche said in February that all options regarding the unit were on the table.

Since then, at least three groups reportedly have expressed interest in Auburn Hills, Mich.-based Chrysler, including Canadian auto-parts supplier Magna International Inc., which has reportedly submitted a bid to buy the business for as much as $4.7 billion.

Cerberus Capital Management LLC and a consortium of investors led by Blackstone Group each have reviewed Chrysler’s finances and are expected to make bids.

The Detroit News, citing people close to the talks, reported on its Web site that all three had submitted formal bids to DaimlerChrysler, with a decision to be made on the bids by the end of April. The automaker did not comment on the report.

No matter when Chrysler is sold, Daimler is unlikely to make back what it paid. Analysts have valued the unit at between nothing and $13.7 billion.

Members of the Canadian Auto Workers, the United Auto Workers of the U.S. and German unions met Tuesday night for more than three hours to plan their strategies. They reiterated that Chrysler should not be sold – and that if it is any deal should not lead to major job cuts.

The unions will play a vital role in any deal because their representatives account for half of the seats on DaimlerChrysler’s supervisory board, the U.S. equivalent of a board of directors.

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