The break-up of Brad and Jen a few years back was one thing. When Reese and Ryan split, that was just plain sad. But there’s no Hollywood divorce that can come close in real-world pain to that biggest-ticket break-up we’ve seen in years—Daimler-Benz and Chrysler are officially over. And before you could say, “Wanna buy a used car company?”, that great American automotive icon that first started producing cars as the Maxwell-Briscoe Company of Tarrytown, New York in 1904 was snapped up by a capital management firm named after the three-headed hell hound of Greek mythology. (Mythic irony: Cerberus is also deeply involved in GM and Ford—hell hound or not, it does indeed appear to have become Big Three-headed.)
Here’s the shocking thing about this: Daimler-Benz spent $36 billion to buy Chrysler in ’98. And Cerberus’ total outlay, not even a decade later? Less than $8 billion.
I wish Cameron were here to comment—I sure don’t know the automotive industry like he does. But as far as I can see, Chrysler’s major ills boil down to one word: legacy. The company’s pension and health-care commitments for employees and retirees now weigh in at over $19 billion—more than half what Daimler-Benz paid. And Ford and GM are saddled with similarly gargantuan pension/health-care costs. With 78 million Baby Boomers barreling straight down the highway headed toward retirement, this arrangement simply won’t work any more.
We’ve got legacy retirement plans, legacy health care plans, legacy manufacturing plants and legacy models. (Does anyone really think SUVs are the car of the future?) America is a young country, but we’re thinking old. Twentieth-century models of thought and business worked in the twentieth century. They won’t work in this one.
If anyone sees this differently, comment, please! — J.D.M.