May 20, 2009 at 12:22 pm

Dealers aim to join Saturn bid

Allies could bolster Penske plan to secure distribution network

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Two local car dealers are in talks about partnering with Detroit auto tycoon Roger Penske to acquire Saturn's distribution network, according to people familiar with the discussions.

The dealers' involvement emerged as General Motors Corp. has narrowed the pool of Saturn bidders to two or three, from about a dozen, a source confirmed. The remaining bidders are interested in the Saturn distribution network and are looking for manufacturing partners. Canadian auto parts maker Magna International Inc. has also expressed interest in Saturn.

The dealers, Joe Serra and David Fischer, both of whom oversee vast auto retail operations in Michigan and several states, would strengthen a Michigan-based bid for Saturn, which will be sold or eliminated by the end of the year as part of GM's restructuring plan.

"They bring financial heft, so you take the three together and you've got a lot of credibility at the banking level," said analyst Joe Phillippi of AutoTrends Consulting Inc. in Short Hills, N.J. "They run pretty first-class operations."

Serra declined comment Tuesday as did a spokeswoman for Fischer.

A source said Fischer and Serra could serve as Penske's equity partners in a deal to acquire Saturn's distribution network.

Penske is the head of Bloomfield Hills-based Penske Automotive Group Inc., which operates more than 300 dealer franchises in the United States and internationally, selling 40 brands.

Penske is interested in tapping the Saturn dealer network and possibly finding a foreign manufacturer to make new vehicles that could be sold through Saturn's network of about 380 dealerships.

Fischer is chairman and CEO of the Suburban Collection, a Troy-based company that includes the world's largest-selling Saturn retailer, Saturn of Troy, and 35 other locations in Michigan and southeast Florida. The Suburban Collection, which includes 16 GM franchises and 24 other brands, has the most dealerships in Michigan and is the 14th largest U.S. automotive retail chain, according to the company's Web site.

Serra, former co-chairman of the North American International Auto Show, heads a Grand Blanc-based operation that has 21 dealerships in six states representing 33 franchises, including Saturn. Serra Automotive ranks in the top 10 privately held retail automotive groups in the country, according to the company's Web site.

GM hopes to conclude a deal for Saturn by the end of the third quarter, Saturn spokesman Steve Janisse said.

Magna has said it is in talks about possibly taking a minority stake in GM's German carmaker Adam Opel. Today is GM's deadline for bids for Opel.

The German government, which is weighing possible loans for Opel also is awaiting more details from potential investors.

Magna could capitalize by taking stakes in Opel and Saturn, since Opel provides the architecture for Saturn models the Astra and Vue.

Magna spokeswoman Tracy Fuerst declined comment.

Magna joins a list of suitors that according to a source includes two leading groups: Penske and Telesto Ventures, a party that includes Oklahoma City-based private equity firm Black Oak Partners LLC and several Saturn dealers.

GM is focusing on four core marquees -- Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick and GMC -- and eliminating or trying to sell Saturn, Saab, Hummer and Pontiac.

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