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Inside GM's plans for Chrysler

There is now no doubt that General Motors is interested in Chrysler. But a lot has to happen before GM can walk away with its longtime rival.
/ Source: Business Week

There is now no doubt that General Motors is interested in Chrysler. It's even more obvious that its German parent, Stuttgart-based DaimlerChrysler, wants to cut it loose. As reported on Feb. 18, GM executives have recently looked closely at the benefits of a deal, even before Daimler Chairman Dieter Zetsche said he would consider selling the company. GM is serious enough about the prospective acquisition that it has consulted with its board of directors.

GM executives have also war-gamed specific strategies for cutting costs and streamlining operations if they do acquire Chrysler. They have picked through various product lines to determine whether two or more can be built on the same platform to trim costs and simplify purchasing. Possibilities include building the next-generation Dodge Ram pickup with the same platform as the Chevrolet Silverado and using the Jeep Wrangler platform for the Hummer H4 concept car from GM. GM executives also see an opportunity to improve Chrysler's profitability by buying parts from around the globe.

DaimlerChrysler looks determined to jettison the company it acquired almost nine years ago. Zetsche said on Feb. 14 that the company was considering all options for Chrysler, including a possible sale. But a deal with GM is far from assured. There are other potential bidders for Chrysler, including Renault-Nissan and Hyundai, both of which seek growth in the U.S. market.

Even if no serious alternative bidders step forward, a lot has to happen before GM can walk away with its longtime rival. Sources within GM say that, first of all, they would have to get Chrysler just about for free. And to make the deal work, the United Auto Workers union would have to make a big concession to both companies on retiree health-care liabilities, says one source close to the situation.

Analysts say that would be the only way to make such a challenging deal happen. GM's health-care liabilities are between $50 billion and $60 billion. Chrysler's are $22 billion. Combining them "is just compounding the problem," says David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. "If they can't get something related to that long-term health-care liability, they can't get a deal done."

Then there is the possibility that the two companies would close plants and marry their manufacturing operations. Sean McAlinden, chief economist at CAR, says that alone could mean the reduction of 10,000 to 15,000 union jobs. The UAW would have to come to the table willing to make significant concessions.

Streamlining dealerships
If GM ends up buying Chrysler, McAlinden says it would cost GM a fortune to get rid of many of the 3,400 Chrysler, Jeep, and Dodge dealers. Chrysler is already trying to thin out its herd of dealers. A streamlined Chrysler would need even fewer. State franchise laws all but require a buyout to get rid of dealers, even if the manufacturer doesn't need them. "Every one of them has a lawyer and a state legislature on their side," McAlinden says.

GM has looked at plenty of reasons to try to buy Chrysler, though. In addition to adding its $62 billion in revenue while gutting the white-collar staff that makes up a lot of the structural cost, GM has already looked at how the two companies could complement each other.

GM could, for example, try to accelerate Chrysler's existing plan to combine Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep at the dealer level so that every dealership sells all three brands. GM has had success with a similar plan that has put Buick, Pontiac, and GMC models under one roof in many markets. One way GM accelerated that strategy was by eliminating vehicles that were basically the same but sold under both the Buick and Pontiac names. After GM reduced the number of vehicles each brand sells, some dealers decided on their own to get out.

That reveals another headache for any company buying Chrysler. While the company has pushed dealers to sell to others so that all three brands are under one roof, Chrysler has simultaneously added rebadged or similar cars to each of its brands. That enables dealers who sell just one or two of the brands to soldier on without adding other Chrysler brands to their offering because they already have a full line of vehicles to sell. Chrysler brand dealers now sell the Aspen sport-utility vehicle, which is a rebadged Dodge Durango. Dodge dealers sell the Nitro, which is similar to the Jeep Liberty. The Dodge Caliber and Jeep Compass are also similar models in consumers' eyes.

GM thinks it could pare down Chrysler's lineup by eliminating redundant cars. At the same time, GM considers Chrysler's minivans a strong product line. And one executive remarked that Jeep has the highest loyalty rate among Chrysler's brands. GM could use the Wrangler platform to make a Hummer H4, a concept car that GM wants to build but hasn't because the company doesn't have a platform.

Chrysler's midsize Sebring and Avenger sedans could be built using GM's global midsize car platform on which the Opel Vectra, Chevrolet Malibu, and Saturn Aura are now based. That would give Chrysler something it lacks, something Daimler's Mercedes-Benz division could never give it: global sales volume and purchasing power.

There are many benefits, according to GM insiders. But big problems, too. In addition to union retiree costs, Chrysler's sales strategy of discounting cars and selling cheap vehicles to rental fleets has flooded the market with cars. Some GM executives think the worst is yet to come. Chrysler will have to keep pulling back production while dealers sell through the excess inventory. "They have really oversupplied the market," says one GM insider. "The cost of that is still ahead of them."

In other words, GM has its eyes open to the pitfalls of buying Chrysler. "I can see GM looking at getting Chrysler at a price you can't refuse," Cole says. Daimler may even be willing to give up Chrysler at such a price. But getting the union and dealers to make it an easy acquisition to swallow may be much harder to do.