GM Said to Study Shedding Saturn, Saab, Pontiac to Win U.S. Aid

Nov. 27 (Bloomberg) — General Motors Corp., working to cut costs to win $12 billion in government loans, is studying whether to shed its Saturn, Saab and Pontiac brands in addition to Hummer, people familiar with the matter said.

Selling or dropping brands would save money and reduce overlap as the biggest U.S. automaker struggles to avoid running out of operating cash by year’s end, said the people, who didn’t want to be identified because no decision has been made. GM’s other U.S. brands are Chevrolet, GMC, Buick and Cadillac.

The review of the 82-year-old Pontiac division, one of GM’s earliest, shows the scope of the survival plan being given to Congress on Dec. 2 to show GM can repay federal aid. GM also seeks to cut debt levels and reduce costs for active and retired union workers, people have said.

Chief Executive Officer Rick Wagoner is under a deadline set by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Congress has scheduled a Dec. 5 hearing on a $25 billion auto-industry rescue and may vote the week of Dec. 8.

A GM spokesman, Steve Harris, declined to comment on what may be included in the Detroit-based automaker’s plan.

Directors are scheduled to review a proposal Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, people familiar with the plans said. The automaker will prepare a 10- to 12-page public document and a private, more detailed plan of about 80 pages with background material, the people said. GM said Nov. 7 it may be short by year’s end of the $11 billion minimum in cash needed to pay monthly bills.

Prodding From Congress

Members of Congress such as Republican Senator Bob Corker Jr. of Tennessee have suggested the automakers might benefit from being able to shed some of their dealers.

GM’s eight U.S. brands are the most among the domestic automakers, compared with four at Ford Motor Co. and three at Chrysler LLC. The Hummer sport-utility vehicle unit was put on the block in June. GM agreed to eliminate the 103-year-old Oldsmobile brand in 2000 because of declining sales.

GM, which turned 100 this year, established the Pontiac division in 1926. The brand’s sales peaked at 896,980 in 1978, according to trade publication Automotive News. That was the year GM sold 9.55 million vehicles worldwide, the highest ever, and came at the end of an era when Pontiac attracted notice for sports coupes such as the Firebird.

Pontiac sales are down 21 percent in 2008, compared with a 15 percent industrywide decline through October.

The brand’s dealerships are the most numerous of the three units under study by GM. The automaker has 1,071 outlets for Pontiac, 400 for Saturn and about 105 for Saab among its 6,400 dealers, said Susan Garontakos, a GM spokeswoman.

Combining Dealerships

GM has been trying to combine Cadillac/Hummer/Saab and Pontiac/Buick/GMC brands into big dealerships able to benefit from higher volumes and lower marketing costs. Toyota Motor Corp., which includes the Scion brand, sold an average of 1,071 cars at U.S. dealerships in 2007 compared with 274 at Saturn, 118 at Pontiac and 115 at Saab, according to Automotive News.

“I would be very surprised if they had any intention of getting rid of Pontiac,” said Randy Marion, owner of Randy Marion Chevrolet-Pontiac-Buick in Mooresville, North Carolina, and a member of GM’s National Dealer Council. The consolidation push has “been working very well,” he said.

GM established the Saturn brand in 1985, five years before selling the first vehicle. Most of the U.S. dealers are standalone, according to GM. Sales reached a peak in 1994 at 286,003 units, according to Autodata Corp. in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey. This year’s deliveries are down 19 percent.

GM made its initial investment in Sweden’s Saab in 1990 and took full control in 2000. Its sales climbed to a record 47,914 in 2003. In 2008, they were down 31 percent through October.

Cash Burn

Declines across GM’s brands are adding to losses of almost $73 billion since the end of 2004. After burning through $6.9 billion in cash last quarter, GM said Nov. 7 that it had $16.2 billion as of Sept. 30. GM has said a bankruptcy filing would be a “disaster.”

GM gained $1.25, or 35 percent, to $4.81 yesterday in New York Stock Exchange composite trading.

The company’s 8.375 percent bonds due in July 2033 rose 5 cents to 19 cents on the dollar, yielding 43.9 percent, according to Trace, the bond-pricing service of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

GM said Nov. 24 that its nine-year marketing accord with Tiger Woods, the world’s top-ranked golfer, will end next month by mutual agreement. GM has also delayed incentive payments to dealers, extended holiday shutdowns and announced plans to cut about 3,600 jobs early next year as production slows.

U.S. operations should be restructured to a maximum of four brands with a 17 percent to 18 percent U.S. market share from the current 8 brands and 22 percent market share, a Deutsche Bank AG analyst wrote in a report yesterday.

“Automakers will likely present relatively aggressive plans” to Congress, Deutsche Bank’s Rod Lache wrote. “Winning over skeptics will require U.S. automakers to submit plans that demonstrate an ability to achieve cash flow breakeven at relatively low demand and conservative market-share levels.”

Lache, who is based in New York, rates GM as “sell.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeff Green in Southfield, Michigan at jgreen16@bloomberg.net; Greg Bensinger in New York at gbensinger1@bloomberg.net

Last Updated: November 27, 2008 00:01 EST
By Jeff Green and Greg Bensinger

Source: Bloomberg

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