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How Magna almost snapped up GM-owned auto maker Opel

Don Walker, CEO of Magna International Inc. addresses shareholders during the 2013 annual general meeting of the company in Toronto.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

It has been almost a century since a homegrown car company existed in this country, but the creation of a Canadian-owned auto maker came tantalizingly close to reality a few years ago.

Magna International Inc. was all set to take over Adam Opel AG, the European manufacturing division of General Motors Co., and, in a vision held by Magna chairman Frank Stronach, eventually assemble vehicles in Canada.

The 2009 deal fell apart when GM opted to hang on to Opel, a decision that it has reversed with the sale of the European unit to PSA Group of France announced Monday.

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The sighs of relief associated with the Magna-Opel deal not happening run through shareholders, analysts and even Magna's chief executive officer, Don Walker.

"I never thought it would be a good thing for Magna to do – never supported it because I don't want to compete with our customers," Mr. Walker said. "So I'm very happy it didn't go through, plus we don't really know how to run a car company."

Mr. Walker was co-chief executive officer of Magna along with Siegfried Wolf in 2009, when Magna made its second attempt to buy an auto maker. The parts giant made a bid for Chrysler Group in 2007 but lost out to hedge fund Cerberus Capital Management LP.

Magna was anointed by the German government in the spring of 2009 as the preferred buyer of Opel when it was put on the block in the midst of the Great Recession and global auto crisis that sent GM into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The German government's approval was initially endorsed by GM.

But by November, 2009, GM decided to hang on to Opel and its Britain-based Vauxhall unit, citing "the importance of Opel/Vauxhall to GM's global strategy."

GM's strategy is much less global with the sale of Opel, which amounts to a withdrawal from the second-largest auto market in the world except for its Cadillac division and a couple of Chevrolet vehicles.

As for Magna, buying Opel "just didn't make any sense for us from a strategy standpoint," Mr. Walker said.

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Analysts agree.

"Really getting into the car business like that would have created so many complexities and issues," said analyst Matthew Stover, who follows the auto industry for Susquehanna Financial Group LLP. "If GM with its global scale couldn't make this economically work, it would be difficult to see how Magna would have been able to do it."

Magna's other customers also opposed the idea of one of their biggest suppliers competing against them – even though they were then and still are happy to contract out the assembly of some of their vehicles line to Magna at its Magna Steyr assembly operation in Graz, Austria.

That opposition became clear about a year after GM pulled the plug on the deal when a trove of confidential documents was released by the whistle-blowing website Wikileaks.

BMW, which relied on Magna at the time to build its X3 crossover, said "there was no way BMW and other German auto manufacturers would have purchased auto parts from Magna once it became a direct competitor as an auto manufacturer," said a memo from the U.S. embassy in Berlin to the secretary of state in Washington that cited the then-CEO of BMW, Norbert Reithofer.

But because the deal fell through, the BMW-Magna relationship remained strong, as witnessed by the beginning of production last week of a new version of BMW's 5-Series sedan at the Magna assembly plant.

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In the eight years since Magna's pursuit of Opel ended and Mr. Stronach's vision evaporated, the Canadian auto-parts giant has changed dramatically.

Mr. Stronach, who founded what became Magna in a Toronto garage in 1957 and was chairman when he led the Opel bid, has departed. His control of Magna ended in 2010 when shareholders agreed to a controversial $1-billion buyout of the multiple voting shares through which he exercised that control.

Mr. Wolf also left in 2010. He joined Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska and his Russian Machines group, which controls auto maker Gaz Group.

Mr. Walker became Magna's sole CEO. Revenue grew to $36.5-billion (U.S.) last year from $24.1-billion in 2010, while final profit doubled to $2.03-billion from $1-billion.

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