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Magna sheds European half of CEO team Add to ...

Just weeks after eliminating its dual-class share structure, Magna International Inc. is eliminating the dual chief executive officer setup that has governed the company since 2005, a move that shifts the auto parts giant's centre of gravity back to North America.

Siegfried Wolf, the European half of the CEO team, will depart Magna in November to join Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska - who briefly shared a controlling stake in the company with founder Frank Stronach - and his Russian Machines operation, which controls auto maker GAZ Group. Don Walker, who had shared the job with Mr. Wolf, will take over as sole CEO.

The move likely signals the beginning of Mr. Stronach relaxing the iron grip he has held on the operations of Magna now that he no longer controls the company through the multiple voting shares he surrendered earlier this month in return for an $860-million (U.S.) payout in cash and common shares.

"North America led the [Magna]restructuring," which meant Mr. Walker rose in Mr. Stronach's estimation, one senior auto industry source said Monday. The question now is how much leeway Mr. Walker will have to run the entire company.

"It will be interesting to see if he has the authority to put his own management team in Europe," the source said. "If you see additional changes, then Don truly is running the company."

Mr. Wolf, 53, was a key lieutenant of the Magna chairman, who plucked him out of a factory run by Austrian munitions maker Hirtenberger AG in 1995.

"I was in a factory once; he left a very good impression," Mr. Stronach recalled Monday. "I think it was on a Thursday or a Friday, I said 'Can you come to my office on Monday?' So he came and I said, 'Look, how much do you get paid, I'll pay you double. When are you going to start?' "

As head of Magna's European operations, Mr. Wolf played a key role in building up the company's Magna Steyr assembly operation to make it the leading contract manufacturer of vehicles; making the first contact with Mr. Deripaska that led to a $1.54-billion investment in Magna in 2007; and joining Mr. Stronach in leading Magna's bid to take a controlling stake in General Motors Corp.'s Opel division last year.

But as Magna grappled with the global automotive crisis by slashing costs and conserving cash, profit margins at the North American operations recovered at a much quicker pace than those in Europe.

Earnings before interest and taxes rose by 8.8 per cent in North America in each of the first two quarters of this year - their highest levels since 2004 - while the European operations posted a 2.9-per-cent jump in the three months ended June 30 and a decline of 3 per cent in the first quarter.

The European figures are skewed by low profit margins at Magna Steyr, but Europe should be doing better, said analyst David Tyerman, who follows the company for Canaccord Genuity Corp. in Toronto.

In Mr. Deripaska's Russian industrial empire, Mr. Wolf will oversee the revival of the oligarch's near-moribund automotive business and take a key role in preparing Sochi to host the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Mr. Wolf is already chairman of GAZ, but will also become chairman of Russian Machines, the industrial and engineering division of Basic Element, Mr. Deripaska's holding company in Moscow. The role will give him "strategic responsibility" for commercial and passenger cars, including a potential move into the electric-car market, road-construction equipment, aircraft, railway transport and military vehicles.

 

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