- The Washington Times - Monday, May 14, 2007

NEW YORK (AP) — Cerberus Capital Management, a private equity firm named after the three-headed hound that guarded the gates of hell in Greek mythology, got its start 15 years ago buying securities of distressed companies.

The firm, run by financier Stephen Feinberg, mostly shunned publicity as it quietly grew into one of the most powerful players in the private equity and hedge-fund universe with $25 billion in capital. But its days mostly out of the limelight came to an abrupt end yesterday with front-page headlines about its plan to invest a bargain-basement $7.4 billion to win a controlling stake in Chrysler Group.

Most of Cerberus’ cash will go into rebuilding Chrysler’s auto-production operations, not into the pocket of DaimlerChrysler AG. The German maker of Mercedes-Benz autos was so eager to get rid of its money-losing U.S. unit that it essentially agreed to kick in as much as $650 million in cash to unwind the 1998 takeover of the parent company of Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge brands.

Cerberus has specialized in buying distressed companies — such as car-rental companies Alamo and National — and then turning them around through heavy cost-cutting.

The firm owns about 50 companies, with more than 175,000 employees and combined revenue of more than $60 billion, according to its Web site. Its portfolio of companies includes such well-known names as Formica Corp. and Air Canada.

Chrysler would add to its auto-industry holdings, which include a 51 percent stake in GMAC Financial Services. It also owns Guilford Mills, the largest automotive-seating supplier in the United States, and Peguform Group, a German manufacturer of interior and exterior plastic parts used in automobiles.

Cerberus is in the midst of a $1 billion takeover of Tower Automotive Inc. and has been in talks to buy a controlling interest in bankrupt auto-parts supplier Delphi Corp. Those talks have stalled, but could begin again.

“Chrysler now has a 1-in-5 chance of being around 10 years from now, which is still a lot better chance than it had yesterday,” said Peter Morici, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. “Cerberus might be the only one out there that can do it. They have the management experience, a record of successfully cutting costs, and is willing to bet real money you can make cars in North America successfully.”

Mr. Morici, and others tracking the deal, point to a “dream team” of sorts that will help increase the odds that Mr. Feinberg will turn Chrysler around. The management team includes former Chrysler Chief Operating Officer Wolfgang Bernhard, who recently joined Cerberus as a senior executive, and David Thursfield, who ran Ford Motor Co.’s operations outside of North and South America and who joined Cerberus in April 2004 as a senior member of its automotive team.

Still, the deal represents a quantum jump in risk for New York’s Cerberus, which will now find itself on the hook for $19 billion in retiree health care costs at Chrysler, which has been losing market share to Asian competitors for years.

Mr. Feinberg, a former U.S. paratrooper who became a trader at Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc. in the 1980s, started his investment vehicle with $10 million and has since attracted a well-known roster of investors. Public pension funds such as TIAA-CREF and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System are among its institutional investors.

Cerberus also has been successful in attracting Republican Party leaders to its side. Besides former Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, who became chairman in October, the firm lists former Vice President Dan Quayle as a director. Donald H. Rumsfeld, the former defense secretary, was an investor in 2001, according to published reports.

Peter Duda, a spokesman for Cerberus in New York, said he could not immediately comment on the deal.

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