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Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne speaks to reporters after delivering his keynote address at the Financial Executives International conference, in Montreal, Friday, May 29, 2009.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes.
Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne speaks to reporters after delivering his keynote address at the Financial Executives International conference, in Montreal, Friday, May 29, 2009.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes.

Fiat nears new benchmark in Chrysler restructuring Add to ...

Fiat has made fast progress toward clearing a second benchmark in restructuring Chrysler that could take its ownership in the U.S. automaker to 30 per cent.

Fiat increased its stake in Chrysler to 25 per cent this week after meeting the first milestone laid out in a complex deal with the U.S. Treasury in 2009.

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Now, the U.S. automaker appears to have shot past the $1.5-billion target for sales outside North America set by the Obama administration in the course of its first full year under Fiat, according to an analysis of Chrysler's 2010 sales figures released Wednesday by Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne.

Meeting that sales target is the first part of a test the Italian automaker needs to clear in order to take its second 5 per cent tranche of Chrysler stock as a reward for its progress in rebuilding the U.S. automaker.

Fiat's swift progress could help it realize a bigger gain on its Chrysler deal than many investors and analysts had expected when it emerged from bankruptcy in mid-2009.

Back then, some industry observers questioned whether Chrysler, the smallest of Detroit's Big Three automakers, could even survive. But the significantly improved quality of Chrysler's latest offerings such as the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Marchionne's leadership have helped boost Wall Street opinions of the U.S. automaker.

Chrysler's initial public offering, planned for the second half of 2011, would come roughly a year after General Motors Co's successful return to the public markets. The new, post-bankruptcy GM went public on the New York Stock Exchange in November and its shares have appreciated 17 per cent since then.

In the case of Chrysler, "They are definitely moving faster than we would have expected," said IHS Automotive analyst Rebecca Lindland. "GM set a very high benchmark for them, so they've got to get everything right and get all their ducks in a row so they can execute a second successful automotive industry IPO."

Fiat was given management control of Chrysler and an initial 20 per cent stake in the third-largest U.S. automaker in 2009 in a bailout directed by the Obama administration.

Mr. Marchionne declined to put any money into Chrysler, which was sent into bankruptcy by the collapse of auto sales and financing in 2008.

Instead, U.S. officials agreed that Fiat would be able to increase its ownership in Chrysler in stages to a total of 35 per cent if it met three tests designed to ensure that the Italian automaker was using its technology and international reach to put Chrysler on a sounder footing.

This week, Fiat announced that it had met the first of those tests established by the U.S. Treasury when it won approval to build a four-cylinder Fiat engine at a previously inactive Chrysler plant in Dundee, Michigan.

Fiat's fuel-efficient small engine is slated for use in the Fiat 500, which is being built in Toluca, Mexico.

The second test for Fiat requires Chrysler to record a total of $1.5-billion in sales outside North America and to obtain agreements from 90 per cent of its dealers in Latin America to carry Chrysler products.

Sales figures listed in the company's news releases and provided by Chrysler showed the company sold 1,515,999 vehicles worldwide in 2010. That includes 147,259 cars and trucks sold outside North America.

Assuming that those vehicles sold near the U.S. average transaction price for Chrysler in the third quarter of just over $27,000, the automaker would have recorded 2010 sales of slightly more than $4-billion outside the NAFTA region.

That would be more than double the target. Ms. Lindland said that figure could be even higher because vehicles are typically more expensive elsewhere in the world.

But there is one snag. Fiat is "technically in compliance" with the requirement of signing up 90 per cent of its Latin American dealers to sell Chrysler products.

But in Brazil, a number of Daimler AG dealers retained rights to Chrysler because of the German automaker's former ownership of the company. These rights were not terminated after Cerberus took ownership of the company in 2007.

This requirement was designed as an incentive for Fiat to sell more Chrysler-made Jeeps and other vehicles in markets like Brazil where it has a strong distribution network.

Mr. Marchionne has said that condition could be renegotiated with Treasury. Spokesman Gualberto Ranieri called the Latin American dealership negotiations "a work in progress" Wednesday.

With an IPO expected later this year, Mr. Marchionne has a short timetable to remake the automaker's ownership and debt structure even as it rolls out new and revamped models led by the Chrysler 300 sedan.

Dodge is developing a compact car on a Fiat platform that will reach 40 miles per gallon, which would satisfy the third test set by Treasury in 2009.

Mr. Marchionne told analysts on a conference call in October that he expected Fiat would meet all of the Treasury's hurdles by the end of 2011.

The indications of progress are significant because the sooner Fiat can raise its Chrysler stake to 35 per cent, the quicker it could exercise an option to take majority ownership of the U.S. automaker.

Mr. Marchionne said Wednesday that Chrysler had met with Goldman Sachs and other banks about raising new financing that would pay back the roughly $7-billion in bailout debt that the automaker owes to the U.S. and Canadian governments.

Refinancing that debt is a key step toward the IPO, Mr. Marchionne said.

Chrysler spokeswoman Shawn Morgan declined to comment beyond the global sales figures. Mark Paustenbach, a Treasury spokesman, declined to comment.

The automaker is set to report fourth-quarter results on Jan. 31.



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