Fiat’s over-ambitious expansion strategy
Could Italy’s cash-strapped Fiat, Europe’s sixth auto maker, build a workable alliance with Chrysler and Opel to become be a profitable global player? Or would it be a marriage of losers, doomed to fail?
Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne has made clear that his interest in Opel, the European arm of ailing General Motors, is more than just a well-timed tactic to get better terms in the alliance he is negotiating with troubled U.S. number three Chrysler. Chrysler faces likely bankruptcy if a deal is not clinched by April 30.
The troubleshooter who turned around the Italian group seems to want both deals. “It is quite possible for Fiat to engage in both of those transactions and to execute them properly,” he said on Thursday. Marchionne sees a wave of consolidation coming in the automobile sector and is determined to gain critical mass to survive. But his strategy looks over-ambitious.
Fiat has little cash and 4.8 billion euros in debt to repay this year, so Marchionne needs deals that cost little or nothing. That means he has to target companies in a weaker position than his.
Fiat would not take on any of Chrysler’s debts, and GM seems willing to give away a 51 percent stake in Opel free to anyone who will invest in it as a going concern, with the U.S. auto maker keeping a minority holding. GM needs Opel’s technology to produce the smaller, greener cars which are the condition for a U.S. government lifeline.
But even if the financials were to add up, which is a big “if”, the challenge for Fiat of turning such an alliance into a viable, profitable group looks daunting.
Germany’s richer, fitter Daimler bought Chrysler in better times and failed to turn the Detroit dinosaur around despite sending in its best managers and engineers, which also had the effect of causing Mercedes’ quality to decline at home.
Marchionne has made clear Fiat would need German state aid to restructure Opel. Since the two firms have lots of overlap in small and mid-range cars, it would have to close plants and lay off thousands of workers, with pain in both Germany and Italy. But Berlin would want guarantees on jobs and production sites in return for its aid, crimping Fiat’s room to make synergies.
Making all this work is a tall order, even for a turnaround maestro like Marchionne, and could be a dangerous distraction from Fiat’s own recovery, as Daimler found with Chrysler. Fiat’s controlling Agnelli family, which brought him in in 2004 to rescue Fiat, should be having an anxiety attack at his strategy.
(Editing David Evans)