The long saga surrounding the fate of General Motors Corp’s European strategy appears to be drawing to a close. After all the wrangling and hard ball played by GM’s board, the company still will recommend selling a controlling stake in its German Opel unit to Canadian parts maker Magna International, GM said today.
GM’s board initially passed on CEO Frederick A. “Fritz” Henderson’s recommendation in late August to sell a controlling stake to Magna because they didn’t like some provisions in the deal. As proposed, the sale would have given Magna control over passenger car platforms and engine technology. The fear was that Magna and its Russian partner OAO Sberbank, which has ties to Russia-based automaker GAZ, would use the technology to compete against GM in Russia and other emerging markets.
But it’s now clear that the board was playing a game of poker. Or perhaps it was good cop, bad cop with Henderson recommending Opel but his board refusing to accept it until the terms got better. Bloomberg reported that the intellectual property issues and financing terms that originally clouded the deal were cleared up to push the deal through.
GM must have also gotten its way on how long the company can use Opel’s car platforms. One of the burning issues for GM all along was what the company would do to develop passenger cars. Opel’s Russelsheim, Germany engineering center did the base work for GM’s compact and mid-sized car platforms.
If they lost control of that engineering work, GM would have to come up with new platforms for the next-generation Chevy Malibu and Buick LaCrosse mid-sized cars and Chevy Cruze compact. GM could have used its Daewoo operations in Korea and U.S. engineers to develop the next-generation cars, but GM executives worried that its best expertise for those models was still in Germany and would be lost in a deal.
Henderson was never keen on the Magna deal all along, say sources inside GM. But with Opel burning cash and the U.S. Treasury Department and German government unwilling to fund a GM-led restructuring, selling the company became the only clear option. GM talked to governments in the U.K., Spain and Poland (homes to other Opel plants) about financing, but no deal was reached that would get the funding needed for GM to keep the German car division.
The German government favored Magna as a buyer believing that the company would save more of Opel’s 25,000 jobs than RHJ International, a Belgian private equity firm which placed a rival bid. GM favored RHJI but the German government would not give the needed $4.5 billion in financing to get that deal done.
GM’s chief negotiator, John Smith, flew to Berlin last night and was scheduled to meet with members of the Opel Trust Board, which oversees the company’s sales and restructuring, this morning. He will recommend the Magna deal to the trust board. GM will hold a press conference to discuss the deal at 11 a.m. today and we’ll see then what the details and conditions are. That may give a clearer picture of how this deal will work.