The cards have now all been laid on the table. Italian carmaker Fiat, Canadian-Austrian auto parts supplier Magna and US private equity firm Ripplewood, through its European subsidiary RHJ International, are all bidding for beleaguered German automobile producer Opel. By the end of next week, the German government is expected to review the deals and make a preliminary decision on which one it favors.
But as the government mulls its options, Opel workers are developing an emergency Plan B. The company's work's council, the body of employee representatives that wields considerable influence within the company, is coming up with its own plan in case Opel's suiters are deemed unsuitable.
"If all else fails, Opel's employees and dealers will present their own offer," Opel works council chief Klaus Franz told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper. He said by voluntarily agreeing to pay cuts, workers could come up with €1 billion ($1.377 billion), and Opel's 4,000-strong network of dealers could raise an additional €500 million in rescue funds.
Franz told the newspaper that he and a team of lawyers and auditors had already prepared the plan. With total funds of €1.5 billion available, however, the group would not be capable of acquiring a majority stake in the company. Under the plan, Opel's troubled American parent company, General Motors, would remain the majority shareholder.
The announcement of the emergency plan is increasing pressure on Fiat, Magna and RHJ to share details of their takeover plans with Opel workers. "We have invited the investors to come to Rüsselsheim (the German city near Frankfurt where Opel has its headquarters) to share the details of their plans," Franz told the newspaper. He said Magna had already agreed, but that Fiat hadn't answered yet.
A Decisive Week
Meanwhile, the federal government in Berlin has said it will quickly review the plans submitted by the three potential investors. On Wednesday night, government representatives said that an Opel task force had already been convened and that the coming week would be decisive.
Right now, the German government has no favored bidder, a spokesperson for Economics Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg of the conservatives told reporters. Ultimately, the final decision will have to be made by GM in Detroit. But it will also likely require a nod of approval from Berlin.
Vice Chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the center-left Social Democrats, who is Germany's foreign minister and is also conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel's opponent in this year's race for the Chancellery, is calling for clear criteria for the investors in order for their bid to get accepted. Steinmeier's main demand is that all four of Opel's plants in Germany remain open. "Our sympathies will go to the bidder that credibly guarantees the Opel plants and the largest number of jobs possible," he told the Bonn General-Anzeiger newspaper. He said efforts had been made to attract strategic investors, and that that initiative had been successful. He said the bids would all be reviewed and that there is "very clearly" a chance that the company's plants in Rüsselsheim, Bochum, Kaiserslautern and Eisenach could be preserved.
In an election, year, Opel's fate has become one of the bigger economic crisis-related stories in Germany, with politicians from all political parties rallying to save the company's 25,000 jobs.
Ulrich Wilhelm, spokesman for Merkel's cabinet, said the responsible government ministers would meet again this week to discuss the bids on the table and that a team of negotiators is prepared to travel to Washington to discuss a solution for Opel. In a first important step, the government and the German states that are home to Opel plants and state-owned banks reached a deal to provide bridge financing for the company. The money is intended to buy more time for Opel as negotiations with investors continue.
A spokesperson for the Italian manufacturer said Wednesday the company has submitted a bid for General Motors Europe subsidiaries Opel and Britain-based Vauxhall. If it succeeds, Fiat would create a new company that would include Opel as well as its holdings in US carmaker Chrysler, the Italian daily La Repubblica has reported. According to the report, Fiat would bring to the table "new engines, common platforms, technologies and its dealership network in Latin America and Asia, where Opel isn't present."
Austrian-Canadian auto components giant Magna, has also submitted a bid. Sources close to the company said the auto parts company had submitted its offer together with Russian carmaker Gaz. Magna and Gaz want to acquire an Opel majority with the financial support from Russian bank Sberbank. However, Magna executives have not commented publicly on the bid.
GM Ranking: Magna Would Be Best
In recent days, GM CEO Fritz Henderson has been closely studying the possibilities. He has to consider the consequences investments in GM Europe will have for the company globally, because GM wants to continue to remain a shareholder and to cooperate on technology and research and development.
SPIEGEL on Thursday obtained information about an internal ranking prepared for Henderson that places Magna as the best choice for the company, private equity firm Ripplewood as second best and Fiat as third on the list.
Magna has a strong reputation going for it as well as the fact that it has attractive technologies available. The company was responsible in large part, for example, of the development of BMW's X 3 SUV. It also offers the advantage that it has enough work available for other manufacturers that some of the excess capacity of Opel's plants in Germany could take on those jobs.
GM insiders give two reasons to explain Fiat's placement at the bottom of the list. For one, Fiat is investing in GM competitor Chrysler. Chrysler could be strengthened if it had access to the know how gained by Fiat through GM's European subsidiaries. GM irritation also persists over a failed partnership with Fiat that ended badly, with the Italian carmaker forcing to payout a €1.5 billion compensation payment.
Still, the internal ranking should not suggest that GM has made a decision. The company will also have to consider the German government's opinion of the offers, which it has been reviewing since Wednesday. Ultimately, GM can only sell a majority stake in Opel to an investor to whom the German government and the states of Hesse, North Rhine-Westphalia, Saarland and Thuringia are willing to provide billions in loan guarantees.