Fiat Chrysler CEO Fans Flames of GM Merger

DETROIT (Detroit Free Press/TNS) —

Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, said the profits and savings that would result from a merger with General Motors are too big for the rival automaker to ignore.

Marchionne, in a story published Sunday evening by Automotive News, asserts that a merger between the two automakers could generate up to $30 billion annually in earnings before taxes, amortization and depreciation.

The idea isn’t new, but Marchionne’s estimates of potential profits and his forceful tone are. The outspoken CEO sent GM CEO Mary Barra an email earlier this year outlining his idea for a merger of the two automakers and the reasons it makes sense. Since then, Barra has said both publicly and privately that the Detroit automaker has no interest in exploring the idea.

“We already have scale and we are leveraging that scale,” Barra said in June. “When you look at the last several years we have been merging with ourselves.”

By mid-summer, it appeared that Marchionne was backing away from the idea — at least in the near future. But he took a more aggressive tone in an interview published by Automotive News.

“Look, the combined entity can make $30 billion a year in cash. Thirty. Just think about that.” Marchionne told the publication. “In steady-state environments, it’ll make me $28 to $30 billion,” at a seasonally adjusted annual selling rate of 17 million new cars and trucks in the U.S.

Marchionne stopped short of saying he is pursuing a hostile deal with GM but said the automaker’s board and executives cannot avoid a discussion of the potential cost savings.

“Not hostile,” he told the publication. “There are varying degrees of hugs. I can hug you nicely, I can hug you tightly, I can hug you like a bear, I can really hug you. Everything starts with physical contact. Then it can degrade, but it starts with physical contact.”

GM said it has already reviewed Marchionne’s proposal.

“Our management and board are always working to maximize shareholder value. After we completed a thorough review of a possible merger with FCA, we concluded that executing our current plan is the best way to create value for GM stockholders,” GM said in an emailed statement Sunday.

Many think that a merger with GM would force the combined company to close a myriad of plants, eliminate thousands of employees and shed brands. Why, for example, would the combined company want to keep both Ram and Chevrolet Silverado pickups? And what would be the fate of the various plants that make those trucks?

Marchionne argued in July that few hourly workers would lose their jobs, brands would not be eliminated and few plants would close. He said it would not result in “blue collar” job cuts.

“The doom and gloom of reductions, and headcounts, plants shutdowns — this is nonsense. I don’t have enough capacity today, why would I do it?” Marchionne said in July. “(A merger) has zero to do with distribution, zero to do with brand structure and nothing to do with anything. Who says that you have too many brands. Who … said that and why? If your distribution networks are different, why do you need to go kill brands?”

“The real benefit of all of this is to shrink the investment in R&D and capital equipment,” Marchionne said.

Marchionne’s pursuit of GM became public shortly after he presented Wall Street analysts with a presentation he called “Confessions of a Capital Junkie.”

In it, Marchionne argued that the automotive industry consumes billions of capital investment annually at a rate that exceeds most other industries. And, Marchionne argued, the pace of that capital consumption will increase in the coming years as automakers work furiously to develop new infotainment technology, meet stricter environmental regulations, develop alternative-fuel vehicles and technology for autonomous vehicles.

Mergers between automakers must occur, Marchionne concluded, to cut costs and survive — even though auto sales in the U.S. will exceed 17 million new cars and trucks this year and GM and Ford are recording record North American profits.

A number of automotive analysts say Marchionne is pushing for consolidation — and specifically a merger with GM — because Fiat Chrysler trails the competition when it comes to hybrid and electric vehicles and meeting future regulatory standards.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles was formed in October 2014 as a result of the Italian automaker’s acquisition of Chrysler with Marchionne as CEO and John Elkann as chairman. Elkann, the great-great-grandson of Fiat founder Giovanni Agnelli, also is the chairman of Exor, a private-equity investment fund that owns 29.16 percent of Fiat Chrysler.

Elkann is beginning to emerge as an investor who is willing to make aggressive, bold moves when it comes to mergers and acquisitions.

In August, Exor reached an agreement to acquire PartnerRe, a global reinsurance company, for $6.9 billion after launching an unsolicited bid for the company earlier in the year that overcame an existing bid from another company.

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