How Cerberus Enticed Daimlerchrysler

by : Joe Thompson

DaimlerChrysler AG's sale of its American luxury division Chrysler Group for $7.4 billion would mark an epic event in the evolution of the global auto realm. Though the transaction is construed as the end of a great international merger, investors showed enthusiasm to bet billions on the ailing company with an uncertain future.

On February 14 last year, the bomb of selling Chrysler exploded. "No option is being excluded," said Dieter Zetsche Chairman and CEO of Daimler. He added, "In the interest of arriving at the best possible solution for the Chrysler Group and DaimlerChrysler as a whole." Zetsche evaded dozens of queries about the potential sale of Chrysler nine years after it was acquired by Daimler-Benz. "Please understand that we cannot provide you with any more details at this point," he said.

The decision seemed abrupt, almost bizarre. But in reality, Daimler had been preparing for the moment for weeks. The German automaker had hired investment bank J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. to examine its options for Chrysler. Larry Slaughter, a senior executive in the firm's London office who had negotiated previous deals for Daimler, led the project. Inside Daimler, chief strategist RÃ?diger Grube was tapped as the Daimler's point man on the deal.

Over the next ninety days, Daimler engaged in a whirlwind auction played out in secret meetings in Auburn Hills, New York, London and Stuttgart. Chrysler suitors include the Blackstone Group, Cerberus and Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts & Co., General Motors Corp., and Magna International Inc.

The German automaker had no interest in an exposed bidding battle. Instead, Zetsche instructed J.P. Morgan to choose bidders with the financial means and capability to do a deal quickly and decisively. "The three criteria were value, speed and certainty," said one person familiar with the process. "Daimler wanted to move very fast on this."

Secrecy was a principal concern. On the fifth of March, Cerberus senior executive Lenard Tessler and his aides arrived at the Walter P. Chrysler Museum. They were then shuttled to Chrysler's "design dome," which has been transformed into a virtual showroom.

Eventually, Cerberus trumped the powerful rivals to win the bidding for the ailing American division of Daimler. Cerberus was willing to invest billions into Chrysler's operations and assume all of its union liabilities. "Cerberus came forward and said, we really like this business (and) we hear all your requirements," said one source close to Daimler. When Cerberus approved to a mid-May deadline, the deal was all but clinched.

On May 12, Tom LaSorda, Chrysler CEO, flew to Stuttgart with Ron Gettelfinger, the chief of the United Auto Workers union. Gettelfinger had opposed the sale of Chrysler from the very beginning. But after meeting with LaSorda and Zetsche, he agreed to support Cerberus as the new owner of Chrysler.

On May 14 in Stuttgart, Zetsche announced the "solution" to a nine-year marriage that was beyond repair. For $7.4 billion, Cerberus would acquire 80.1 percent of Chrysler and relieve Daimler of all responsibility for its former American partner. "With this transaction," Zetsche said, "we have created the right conditions for a new start for Chrysler and Daimler."

Cerberus Chairman John Snow vowed that his firm would offer a "good home" for Chrysler. "We believe in Chrysler," he said. After the announcement, Zetsche flew to Auburn Hills for one final meeting at Chrysler. In a poignant "town hall" gathering, the German executive said his goodbyes to the troops in Auburn Hills.

Like the , Cerberus will aid Chrysler to patch up the mistakes in the past. Chrysler is counting on its turnaround plan to return to profitability.