Chrysler regains American identity

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DETROIT (AP) — Chrysler became an American company again yesterday as Cerberus Capital Management gained a controlling share from Chrysler’s German owners and started on the long road to restoring the 82-year-old automaker’s luster — and profits.

DaimlerChrysler AG transferred an 80.1 percent stake in Chrysler to New York-based Cerberus, one of the world’s largest private equity firms, in a $7.4 billion deal. The German automaker retained a 19.9 percent interest in the new company, Chrysler LLC.

“After months of uncertainty, then a period of transition, we are beginning a new chapter in Chrysler’s proud history — and we have the chance to write a terrific story,” Chrysler Chief Executive Tom LaSorda said in an e-mail to employees.

With the close, Chrysler became the first U.S. automaker in private hands since Ford Motor Co. went public in 1956. Chrysler, which plans a company-wide celebration Monday when it will revive its five-sided star logo, will be free of the short-term quarterly earnings pressures that public companies face, since there will be no Chrysler shares.

“Going private means we can bring laser-like focus to our business and make the long-term investments needed to compete,” Mr. LaSorda said.

DaimlerChrysler shares will become Daimler shares, but otherwise shareholders won’t be affected. DaimlerChrysler is to be renamed Daimler AG, a change that must be approved by shareholders at a meeting Oct. 4 in Berlin. In a letter to employees, Daimler chairman and former Chrysler chief Dieter Zetsche said the company made the right decision.

“As a company we’ve become faster and overall more efficient,” he said. “Our balance sheet is strong.”

The sale ends the stormy nine-year marriage of Daimler and Chrysler, which merged in a $33 billion deal that was hailed as creating a global giant. Instead, Daimler found itself battered by rising pension and retiree health costs in the United States while its Mercedes brand faltered with quality problems at home.

While Chrysler made $1.8 billion in 2005, it lost $618 million in 2006. The losses attracted the sale and forced Chrysler to announce a plan to shed 13,000 hourly and salaried jobs in the U.S. and Canada by 2009.

Jim McTevia, a Detroit restructuring consultant, said Chrysler was in a precarious position before the deal.

“I really believe that had this not taken place, Chrysler would have ultimately been sold off in pieces,” he said. “I do think now that Chrysler has a very bright future.”

Mr. McTevia said Cerberus can bankroll Chrysler’s restructuring and help the automaker find new business overseas, where it has struggled. He said the market is closely watching Cerberus‘ ambitious gamble.

Cerberus Chairman John Snow said Cerberus plans to keep Chrysler’s management team in place and give it the freedom to implement its restructuring plan. Part of that plan is the introduction this month of the redesigned 2008 Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country minivans, which are critical products for Chrysler.

Former Chrysler executive Wolfgang Bernhard, a senior adviser to Cerberus, is expected to be named chairman of the board at Chrysler, but there was no announcement about Mr. Bernhard yesterday.

As part of the deal, Cerberus agreed to invest $6 billion in Chrysler and its financing arm, and to pay DaimlerChrysler $1.4 billion.

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