Sergio Marchionne, the architect of the auto industry’s biggest deal in more than a decade, may not be finished yet.
Even as he completed the merger of Fiat SpA and its U.S. Chrysler unit last year to create Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, Marchionne said the industry is still fragmented and ripe for further consolidation. His planned spinoff of Ferrari this year puts the $14 billion automaker into position for another combination that could form a group to vie with No. 1 Toyota Motor Corp. or help address shortcomings in Asia.
Manufacturers are under pressure to join forces amid slowing growth and rising costs to develop cleaner cars and add automated driving functions and smartphone-like technology. By lowering debt with the cash raised from cutting loose Ferrari, Fiat Chrysler becomes a more attractive partner. The spinoff also gives Marchionne more leeway to set up a transaction by ensuring the Agnelli family, Fiat Chrysler’s biggest shareholder, retains control over supercar-maker Ferrari.
While the Agnellis want to keep Ferrari, they would probably be “open to strategic combinations that will reduce, or eliminate, their stake” in Fiat Chrysler, said Max Warburton, a Singapore-based analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.
Volkswagen AG, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. all fit criteria that Marchionne outlined last year for a suitable partner, while Mazda Motor Corp. and Suzuki Motor Corp. could be viable Asian merger candidates, analysts and investors said.
“There’s room for megadeals in the car industry in the medium term as carmakers will be forced to share development costs,” said Stefano Aversa, managing director of strategy consultancy AlixPartners in London. “No carmaker can sustain the investment needed alone, not even the biggest ones.”
By announcing the Ferrari spinoff just days after completing the Fiat-Chrysler merger in October, Marchionne, a self-proclaimed corporate “fixer,” signaled he may be open to another deal down the road. With the 62-year-old chief executive officer planning to stay at the helm to complete a strategic plan that runs to 2018, he’s still got time to consider a transaction.
“I’ve always had the view that this industry over the middle to long term needs to look at other consolidation opportunities,” Marchionne said in November. “Eventually it must happen.”
The spinoff of Ferrari is part of Fiat Chrysler’s efforts to raise about $5 billion to cut debt. The company also issued shares and convertible bonds last month.
Marchionne and John Elkann, chairman of the automaker and descendant of Fiat founder Giovanni Agnelli, said last fall that Fiat Chrysler is now strong enough on its own and didn’t need another deal. Still, they outlined an ideal partner for the company. That would be an automaker that’s global and not too exposed to the European market, while being culturally compatible with the Italian-American company. That could put Ford at the top of the wish list.
“Ford has been the North Star for Fiat ever since Fiat’s founder Giovanni Agnelli visited Detroit in the 1910s,” said Giuseppe Berta, a professor at Bocconi University in Milan and the former head of Fiat’s archives. “There are distinct affinities between Fiat and Ford.”
While Fiat Chrysler has emerged as the world’s seventh-largest automaker after the merger, its appeal to competitors may be limited. The company lacks sizable operations in growth markets such as China and India, with its main strength in the mature and competitive U.S. and European markets.
“Fiat Chrysler is neither attractive nor rich enough to attract anyone better than a desperate castoff,” said Erik Gordon, a business professor at the University of Michigan. “The next conquest won’t be so easy.”