Howes: FCA-GM merger talk challenges UAW amid talks

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

If Sergio Marchionne has any success landing the newest target of his desire, the most likely flashpoint in the United Auto Workers' looming talks with Detroit's automakers won't be about the contract at all.

It'll be the fate of his hourly workers and their plants. Should talk of a potential merger between The Boss's Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and an officially uninterested General Motors Co. become more than the rhetorical belly-bumping over the next few months, persuading the union to back any deal would be a high-stakes "grand bargain" all its own.

"To my knowledge, so far General Motors hasn't entertained it," UAW President Dennis Williams said Thursday of Marchionne's professed interest in a GM tie-up. "But Sergio, what we find with him is he understands manufacturing, he understands the auto industry and he's not a person you take lightly."

Exactly right. That's why it's no accident Marchionne dropped his 25-page "Confessions of a Capital Junkie" — subtitled "an insider perspective on the cure for the industry's value-destroying addiction to capital" — on the market three months before contract bargaining is scheduled to open.

Nor can it be an accident that he shot GM CEO Mary Barra an e-mail to suggest a merger that would almost certainly culminate in another rationalization of brands, product portfolios and plant networks. The result likely would impact profoundly (that is, negatively) the industry's footprint in Michigan and the industrial Midwest.

Nor should reports be surprising that Marchionne is said to be turning to outside investors for help to pressure a leaner, more financially robust GM into talks it doesn't want to have. If he can get the right players to spend enough to buy enough GM shares, his weaker company would become a force GM could not ignore.

All of this is happening amid the run-up to national contract talks for a reason, however much of a distraction it's likely to be. A deal of any meaningful magnitude that proposes to combine two of Detroit's three automakers would require the support of the politically connected UAW, presumably in exchange for assurances on jobs, plants and product investment.

In short: If Marchionne's merger proposition gains any traction in the next few months, there's almost no way it won't impact contract talks, notwithstanding Williams' insistence to the contrary in his final roundtable interview before bargaining officially begins in mid-July.

Ol' Sergio is playing for keeps. An FCA-GM tie-up, particularly one that contemplates more than product-development partnerships, would be more far-reaching for Detroit than the aborted Daimler-Chrysler fusion of the late '90s or the Renault-Nissan alliance a few years later.

Those deals combined companies based on different continents with arguably complementary product lines and disparate workforces still needed to make it all work. They also exposed the critical role culture, leadership and an imperative for change can have in trans-national tie-ups — or not.

A full-blown combination of FCA and GM might promise higher margins and a stronger return on invested capital — Marchionne's professed goal — for the two automakers rescued by American taxpayers. But for whom, based where and at what price in terms of jobs, plants and brands?

Would a combined company need Chevrolet, Dodge and Chrysler in the United States and Canada? Nope. Jeep? Yes. GMC, Chevy and Ram trucks? Doubtful. Fiat and Opel in Europe? Maybe. Latin America? Debatable. China? Advantage GM, most likely.

It's not entirely clear what Marchionne envisions, beyond his stock example that the industry doesn't need 20 automakers making 20 different (and largely similar) 2-liter engines for customers who cannot tell the difference and probably don't care. But it's probably safe to assume the kind of savings, scale and financial gearing he contemplates cannot be achieved with powertrain partnerships.

No, seven years of Marchionne watching around here, plus the couple more when he depantsed GM and pocketed $2 billion for Fiat SpA, are enough to know he's audacious because he's willing to take big risks. And he usually wins, making him a formidable adversary for Williams and the UAW, Barra and GM's directors.

GM is the most obvious target because so many others are too hard to crack: the Ford family holds a blocking stake in Ford Motor Co.; Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. don't need or want a partner; the Germans are premium plays in a mass-market deal he envisions; Carlos Ghosn's Renault-Nissan is complex enough; PSA Peugeot Citroën of France is troubled.

There are all sorts of reasons a combination might make sense for Marchionne and FCA's controlling shareholder Exor SpA, the holding company for the Agnelli clan (of which Marchionne is vice chairman). Not so much GM, whose resolve in the board room likely will be tested by the global industry's shrewdest deal-maker.

This isn't over.

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Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at