DaimlerChrysler, Hold the Chrysler

DaimlerChrysler Chairman Dieter Zetsche (you might remember him from the "Dr. Z" ad campaign that aired last year) confirmed today at the company's annual meeting in Germany that Chrysler could be sold.

While a deal could be announced any time, analysts and industry watchers believe that talks are still under way with potential buyers, and that it could be weeks or months before any agreement is finalized.

One reason is that any buyer for all or parts of Chrysler would have to negotiate with the United Auto Workers union, which has recently made it clear that its members have made enough sacrifices.

Chrysler, which appeared to have turned a corner and was doing better than its domestic competitors, stumbled in 2006. It lost $1.5 billion for the year, leading the company to announce this past February that it would close a plant and cut 13,000 jobs, or 16 percent of its work force.

The actual date of the announcement was an unfortunate choice -- Feb. 14. It quickly garnered the title the "Valentine's Day Massacre" from employees and the media.

Then, two days later, news reports surfaced in the United States that the German-based Daimler was in talks with General Motors about a possible sale of Chrysler.

Daimler purchased Chrysler in 1998 for $36 billion. Today, most reports suggest the top value of the struggling U.S. automaker is less than $1 billion to nearly $14 billion.

This broad price range reflects Chrysler's $17 billion to $19 billion health care liability for union employees, retirees and their dependents, who pay little to no deductibles for coverage.

Deal or No Deal?

The major contenders for all or part of Chrysler include Cerberus Capital Management, a private equity firm that recently hired former Chrysler COO Wolfgang Bernhard. Cerberus has been exploring further investments in the auto industry, and recently bought 51 percent of GM's financing unit, GMAC.

Blackstone Group, one of the biggest private equity firms, may also be interested. At the end of March, the firm announced an initial public offering, making shares available to the general public. In recent public filings, the company said it controls more than $78 billion in assets.

Another contender is Magna, Canada's largest auto parts maker, which already builds cars for DaimlerChrysler in Europe. Reports link the company with private equity firm Ripplewood, which recently hired former Chrysler group president Thomas Stallkamp.

General Motors is also a dark horse candidate. While industry watchers said it would not be a bad strategic move for the world's largest automaker to take on Chrysler's problems when it is still struggling to turn consistent profits, GM might be interested in parts of Chrysler, if it could get them cheap.

Union Woes

But for any deal to be succeed, buyers will have to contend with the union.

"I think the UAW will try to scare off private equity firms," said Gary Chaison, a labor relations professor at Clark University.

The union is concerned that private equity bosses would want severe job cuts and dramatic reductions in benefits to current and retired union members.

"Private equity firms don't do labor relations," said Chaison. "They do profit making and that's where the UAW would try to do whatever it could to prevent the sale of Chrysler to a private equity firm."

Auto industry analyst John Casesa agrees. The union has already scared off foreign car companies that might have wanted to expand their production and distribution networks in the United States, he said. "I am quite confident that the union strategy will be to delay, to resist, and that takes you into September when the [union] contract expires."

The current contracts between the Big 3 U.S. automakers and the UAW expire this fall. Negotiations will begin in earnest in July. In past years, the union has focused on one automaker, then sought to negotiate a similar deal with all three companies.

But if a private equity firm is sitting across the table during the talks, the union will have a tougher time fashioning one contract that could apply to Ford, General Motors and Chrysler.

That's especially true if new bosses at Chrysler push for cuts the union finds unacceptable.

"I think these are going to be the most difficult negotiations the union has ever faced," said Chaison.