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Old 08-24-2006, 06:26   #1 (permalink)
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US:Bill Ford to Ghosn: Let's talk alliance

Bill Ford to Ghosn: Let's talk alliance

Automaker interested in possible Renault-Nissan deal if GM talks falter.

Bryce G. Hoffman / The Detroit News

DEARBORN -- As Ford Motor Co. struggles to hold on to its position as America's No. 2 automaker, Chairman and CEO Bill Ford Jr. is signaling a new willingness to discuss an alliance with another car company.

Bill Ford recently called Carlos Ghosn, the celebrated CEO of Nissan Motor Corp. and Renault SA, to say he is interested in talking if Ghosn's proposed tie-up with General Motors Corp. fails to materialize, people familiar with the situation said Wednesday.

A Ford spokesman would not confirm the overture to Ghosn, first reported Wednesday in the Wall Street Journal, but company sources said the call was part of an effort to explore potential moves Ford could make.

"People are talking to each other more these days since the Nissan-GM talk started," said one person familiar with the effort. "If we are entering a period of consolidation, you don't want to be left without a chair when the music stops ... We are in a position of evaluating our options."

The person stressed that any discussions are very preliminary and won't necessarily lead anywhere.

In an interview with BusinessWeek magazine that was posted on the magazine's Web site Wednesday evening, Bill Ford said he would not discuss any specific alliance, but said that he is not ruling anything out.

"There are a lot of players out there gaming these things out, and we are, too," he said. "If we find someone with common interest, and it's good for all of us, we would look at that."

The GM-Nissan-Renault discussions were initiated by GM investor Kirk Kerkorian, who first proposed an alliance between the three automakers in June.

GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner agreed to begin a formal study of the possible alliance in July -- a process that is expected to conclude in October.

Bill Ford's discussion with Ghosn comes as the automaker struggles to stabilize its North American automotive operations in the face of declining sales and mounting financial woes.

Last month, Toyota Motor Corp. sold more cars and trucks in the United States than Ford for the first time, coming in second to GM.

Meanwhile, Ford posted a second-quarter loss of $254 million, announced one of the largest vehicle recalls ever and said it would slash fourth-quarter production by 21 percent -- its biggest production cut in decades.

Ford also has hired Kenneth Leet, a mergers-and-acquisitions expert, who has been charged with taking a hard look at all of the company's brands with an eye to selling off some assets and exploring possible alliances.

Leet has already begun meeting with Ford executives to discuss both of those strategies.

Analysts say an alliance with Renault-Nissan could help Ford, and many think it makes more sense than a tie-up with a reluctant GM.

On news of Bill Ford's outreach to Ghosn, Ford shares rose 34 cents Wednesday, or 4.6 percent, to close at $7.76 on the New York Stock Exchange.

But not everyone on Wall Street sees such a collaboration as a silver bullet.

"We see alliance-related upside in Ford shares in only one case -- if it includes a management role for Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn," said Robert Barry of Goldman Sachs.

"But GM seems to have first dibs on an alliance with Ghosn and (Renault-Nissan), and we suspect influential GM shareholder Kirk Kerkorian will push hard to make sure if an alliance is meant to be that it happens with GM.

"We have doubts that Ghosn would play a significant management role in any new alliance, given comments he has made publicly in that regard Ghosn has his hands full restructuring Renault and must also help engender new momentum at recently flagging Nissan, where quality problems and falling U.S. sales have hurt results."

In July, Ghosn told The Detroit News that he is open to considering other alliances if a merger with GM fails to gel.

Ghosn has never ruled out a deal with Ford. However, some in investment banking circles contend that no one will deal with Ford unless the family agrees to dilute its voting rights to 20 percent and hires an experienced CEO to take over day-to-day running of the company from Bill Ford.

The Ford family controls 40 percent of the automaker through its exclusive ownership of Class B super-voting shares. Bill Ford told BusinessWeek that the Ford family will not be an impediment to the company's restructuring.

"Look, whatever is required for the recovery, the family will not stand in the way," he said. "All our net worths are tied up in this. The family will not be a limiting factor to any plan that moves us forward."

But Ford also said the family does not believe it needs to rethink its ownership stake.

"We have been part of this company for 100 years," he said. "We've been there in good times and bad times. And that issue has never been raised. I'm not sure what it would accomplish."
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