Carlos Ghosn, the French auto executive who charted a successful turnaround at Nissan seven years ago, is one of his industry's hottest commodities. Could he be the man to end one of its longest cold streaks?
For Kirk Kerkorian, it is a question worth exploring. Shares of
surged Friday after Kerkorian, the company's biggest shareholder, claimed the
-Nissan alliance led by Ghosn might consider bringing GM into its fold and buy a minority stake in the world's No. 1 automaker.
In recent trading, GM's stock was up $1.25, or 4.6%, to $28.69, bringing its gain for 2006 to about 25%.
"It is our understanding that Renault S.A. and Nissan Motor Co. are receptive to the concept of including General Motors in their partnership-alliance and purchasing from General Motors a significant minority interest in the company," Kerkorian said in a letter to Rick Wagoner, GM's CEO. A report on
said the stake could be 20% of GM for a price of $3 billion.
The letter was registered with the
Securities and Exchange Commission
in a 13D filing made early Friday. Kerkorian, the Las Vegas billionaire who owns 10% of GM, urged the company to act on the proposal.
"The Renault-Nissan partnership-alliance has created tremendous engineering, manufacturing and marketing synergies, resulting in substantial benefits and cost savings to both Renault and Nissan," the letter said.
"We believe that participating in a global partnership-alliance with Renault and Nissan could enable General Motors to realize substantial synergies and cost savings and thereby greatly benefit the company and enhance shareholder value. Accordingly, we urge the board of directors to form a committee to immediately and fully explore this opportunity together with management."
Nissan, Japan's second-largest automaker, is 44% owned by Renault. CEO Ghosn was credited with keeping Nissan out of bankruptcy when he was installed as its first non-Japanese CEO in 1999. The turnaround could be valuable experience in figuring out what to do with GM.
Argus Research's Kevin Tynan says that these are early days in the sense that Kerkorian is grabbing the two sides by the hand and trying to bring them together. For GM, Tynan sees it as a positive, "not so much for technical and quality issues but for cost savings." The three companies -- GM, Renault and Nissan -- could certainly share technology in manufacturing and development, Tynan says, but the overriding benefit is savings on the cost side. (Neither Tynan nor his firm own GM shares.)
Costs have been the big question for more than a year at GM, which lost $10.5 billion in 2005 as it grappled with declining market share and the huge expenses for employee health and pension benefits. It's preferred solution has been the ax: The company is in the process of buying out the contracts of tens of thousands of workers and closing about a dozen plants.
This week, GM said about 28,000 GM employees, or a quarter of its UAW-represented workforce, have opted into the program, while around 9,000 workers at bankrupt auto supplier
took the offers. Because GM has said it is seeking to cut 30,000 hourly jobs by 2008 through attrition and other methods, the results indicate an early success for the world's largest automaker and its CEO, Rick Wagoner.
Still, Wagoner's turnaround is far from a done deal. In a discussion with analysts this week, GM warned that its summer sales could be disappointing, particularly in comparison to year-ago periods when the company was using interest-free financing to move inventory.
On the issue of management, Tynan says, "while it may be seen as dilutive to management's power" what it does give GM is "access to Carlos Ghosn, the most coveted executive in the industry" and "an inside line to him."
It would be hard to name an industry executive whose name brings more cachet than Ghosn.
"What Ghosn did at Nissan was impossible. He's Superman," said Burnham Securities analyst David Healy. That said, Wagoner "almost lost his job because of disastrous foreign investments," including spending $2 billion on Fiat. "There's not a snowball's chance in hell" that Wagoner will getting into more foreign investments.
In a brief press release, GM said it hadn't heard from the parties named in Kerkorian's filing.
"General Motors Corp. has received no offer or proposal from Renault/Nissan with respect to its participating in the Renault/Nissan Alliance, as suggested in the 13-D filing made today by the Tracinda Corp.," GM said. "The Tracinda request will be taken under advisement by the GM Board of Directors. At this time, we have no further comment."