For Steve Feinberg, the onetime owner of Chrysler, the past year has been a crawl toward defeat. He lost billions of dollars. He lost prestige. He lost his privacy. And he ended up a ward and supplicant of the federal government.
But, even now, Mr. Feinberg, a man who can play a decent game of chess while blindfolded, is hard-pressed to pinpoint many mistakes. Sitting in his office on Park Avenue, far away from the detritus that surrounds Detroit, he grows pensive when asked what he has learned from his audacious — and failed — effort to privatize and resurrect the legendary and deeply troubled auto giant. “I don’t know what we could have done differently,” he says, crossing his arms on his chest. “From the day we bought it, we worked hard to improve it.”
He pauses, pondering, as the clock ticks away. Then he shakes his head. “We were too optimistic on timing,” he says. “Maybe what we should have done was not bought it.”
Mr. Feinberg took over Chrysler almost exactly two years ago, promising to revive the company. Chrysler filed for bankruptcy protection at the end of April. So how he and his private equity firm, Cerberus Capital Management, choose to describe their journey with Chrysler is a delicate matter.
If he says he should have shelled out more money to help Chrysler, he could face the ire of investors who have already suffered heavy losses on his gambit. If he says he should have simply dumped Chrysler’s auto arm, while clinging to its more promising finance unit, he could be accused of caring more about his wallet than he did about Chrysler’s workers and the automaker’s role in the economy.
Mr. Feinberg’s education at the hands of Chrysler, the government and economic reality is emblematic of the limits private equity players have encountered as they’ve sought to reap outsize returns while also contending that they had the smarts and managerial prowess to repair companies of any size. Not too long ago, some pundits and analysts wondered whether private equity firms — backed with a rising tide of easy bank loans — could gain enough traction to make runs at seemingly untouchable behemoths like General Electric.
When Cerberus began poking around Detroit, some at the firm said they thought that the American automobile industry was going to be the biggest turnaround story in history. In sessions with potential investors in the last few years, the Cerberus team came across as passionate, skilled and incredibly confident that they could succeed where others had failed.
“I thought, wow, this really signals a real change in the landscape here,” recalls a person who attended a Cerberus session who asked to remain anonymous because of agreements he signed. “I guess it gave me hope. The auto companies needed an enormous amount of capital, and where else was it going to come from?”
John W. Snow, a former Treasury secretary in the Bush administration and Cerberus’s chairman, also heralded Cerberus as Chrysler’s savior, likening the firm’s investment to the government rescue of Chrysler in 1979.
“Over 25 years ago, when Chrysler faced bankruptcy, it turned to the United States government for assistance,” Mr. Snow said at a National Press Club meeting in 2007. “Today, Chrysler again faces new financial challenges. But it is private investment stepping in to inject much-needed support.”
Cerberus and its co-investors ultimately invested $7.4 billion in Chrysler, a sum now worth an estimated $1.4 billion. Ideally, Cerberus hoped to wed Chrysler’s finance arm to another finance company it controlled, GMAC. To that end, the risks in Chrysler’s auto business were something that the Cerberus team thought it could manage and that wouldn’t stand in the way of making billions of dollars for investors.
An Investment at the Top of the Credit Bubble
“This will go down as one of the investments made at the very top of the credit bubble,” Josh Lerner, a professor who studies private equity at the Harvard Business School. “They don’t look good. This will be a black eye on their record.” Indeed, GMAC and Chrysler became so weak that they needed $22.6 billion in government aid in the last year to stay afloat. For Chrysler and its workers, investors, business partners and customers, was all of that worth it?
Mr. Feinberg defends his actions, saying he did everything possible to help the company. Known for avoiding publicity, he says that he was naïve not to anticipate the public attention that would surround him once he bought Chrysler and that he would have avoided the investment had he known.
“I always view the press as something for guys who were trying to do big things,” he says, perhaps overlooking that Chrysler was, indeed, a very big thing.
Don Johnson, a former Chrysler employee, says he worked on initial production of the Jeep Liberty at a plant in Toledo, Ohio, in summer 2007, when Cerberus won the right to buy Chrysler from Daimler of Germany.
To the surprise of some, Mr. Feinberg managed to woo the support of the United Automobile Workers for the deal. But Mr. Johnson says he was always skeptical about the carmaker’s new owners. “Cerberus did not have a clue about the automotive industry,” he says. “I don’t think anything could have been worse.”
Still, if you peel back Mr. Johnson’s argument, you quickly find a story of an automaker that was already in peril by the time Cerberus came on the scene. For example, he says the body shop at his plant couldn’t produce Jeep frames fast enough to keep up with the paint and assembly lines. Instead of fixing the problem, he says, the factory paid the body shop workers overtime to come in Sundays to keep up.
Cerberus took the helm about a week after Mr. Johnson’s team ran into problems with the Jeep. When Mr. Feinberg addressed workers at a town hall meeting at Chrysler’s headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich., shortly after the deal, he spoke of his long love of American manufacturing, according to workers who attended the speech. In particular, he said he was proud to repatriate Chrysler’s ownership from Germany.
“Steve saw this as a huge patriotic opportunity, in addition to a great investment,” says Robert L. Nardelli, the former Home Depot chief executive whom Cerberus installed at Chrysler’s helm.
Although some investors doubt that anything other than profits drove Mr. Feinberg’s investment, many say they believe that he was authentically excited by the prospect of reviving an American corporate icon — a theme that Mr. Feinberg is happy to support.
Surrounded by rifles, a motorcycle and model cars in his office, Mr. Feinberg mentions family members who have served in Iraq and a brother-in-law who worked at G.M. He apologizes for rambling and explains his motivation for investing in Chrysler: “I love this country,” he says. “I feel it’s been great to me. I had a great chance.”
Still, Mr. Feinberg, 49, has spent years as a dealmaker. The son of a steel salesman, he graduated from Princeton in 1982, where he studied politics. He went into finance so he could pay off his student loans. He worked at Drexel Burnham, the investment bank made famous by Michael R. Milken before it collapsed, and then, after a brief stop at a smaller firm, he was a co-founder of Cerberus in 1992.
For years, Cerberus was largely a trading shop specializing in distressed debt. But by the mid- 1990s, Mr. Feinberg expanded into buying and selling distressed companies and hired dozens of seasoned corporate executives to run them. Chrysler was the biggest prize he had ever bagged, and many co-investors say they always believed Cerberus’s stake in Chrysler’s auto operation was never the main reason the firm was interested in the company.
According to five people who heard Cerberus’s Chrysler pitch, all of whom requested anonymity because of confidentiality agreements, Mr. Feinberg’s deputies valued the financing unit more than the auto operation. In fact, the deputies believed, the finance unit’s value covered the cost of buying Chrysler, making the car company something of a bonus — if that part of the investment worked out, great; if not, Cerberus could still profit on the finance unit.
Mr. Feinberg says he believed the automobile operation had great potential value, perhaps even more than the finance arm if Cerberus could put the automaker on the right track. But that meant he and Mr. Nardelli (who had never overseen a car company) had to effectively manage the auto operation — no small feat.
By October, only three months into Cerberus’s tenure, Mr. Johnson says it was becoming obvious to him and other workers that trouble was ahead. “We went from three shifts to two shifts to one shift within a year,” Mr. Johnson recalls. “Then there was just down week after down week.”
To reduce expenses, Mr. Nardelli cut excess factory capacity and billions of dollars in fixed costs. He improved the interiors of several models, which bolstered some of its approval ratings.
But there still wasn’t a strong demand for Chrysler’s product line, which was packed with large vehicles like minivans and S.U.V.’s at a time when skyrocketing gas prices were making consumers interested in more fuel-efficient cars.
The company was aware that its lineup was far too limited. And Cerberus sent Chrysler executives around the world to seek partnerships with foreign automakers like Nissan. The hope was that those companies would help provide a broader product line for dealers.
No Time to Bear Fruit
But there was not time for any of the efforts to bear fruit. Chrysler was burning through cash.
“Once the car market stalled, the cash in the auto market evaporated,” says Maryann Keller, a longtime auto analyst and consultant, of Chrysler’s predicament. “The cash was leaving their balance sheet, and they weren’t selling cars to make money they could invest.”
That situation was made worse by hefty interest payments on more than $10 billion in debt that Cerberus arranged for Chrysler as part of the takeover, which left the automaker carrying piles of debt just as auto sales were about to plummet. While many private equity deals involved saddling companies with debt to pay off investors, Chrysler needed to take on more debt because it had so little cash on hand to finance its operations, some analysts say. The company paid back some of the debt in November 2007.
Ms. Keller says that the company that Mr. Feinberg took over was already suffering from myriad problems: a bad cost structure, a limited product line and no pipeline of more diverse offerings. In short, she says, Cerberus had simply bought “a basket case.”
At the beginning of 2008, Mr. Feinberg sized up his investment in a private letter to his investors. “We do not need to be heroes to earn a good return on the investment in Chrysler,” he wrote. “We do not need to transition the car industry or even to return Chrysler to a much stronger relative position in the U.S. car market in order to be successful.”
His letter sent a chill around New York, where dozens of hedge funds had joined in his Chrysler bet. Although these firms had agreed to let Cerberus control decisions involving their investments, there was fear about how his harsh words might affect the industry’s image. After all, such a steely, hard-headed look at Chrysler didn’t mesh with the patriotic tone of Cerberus’s other statements about the company. Nor did it comport with the private equity industry’s broader arguments that its investments were good not only for its firms, but also for America.
Cerberus, meanwhile, was unable to stop Chrysler’s downward spiral. Last fall, Chrysler and General Motors tried to merge their operations, a scenario Mr. Feinberg supported, but a deal could not be struck. And in November, Chrysler announced a huge employee buyout. Mr. Johnson, the worker at the Toledo plant, joined thousands of others who signed up.
“There was absolutely no hope” among employees accepting the buyouts, he says.
Mr. Feinberg says that he sympathizes with Mr. Johnson, but that he also believes business restructurings are, unfortunately, often brutal affairs. “It’s demoralizing when things go down,” he says. “But that’s a turnaround, you know. Some guys make it; some guys don’t want to deal with it. This was the most difficult environment. You couldn’t think of a worse storm for an employee to have to live through.”
It was also, as it turns out, a bad storm for Chrysler’s owners.
MR. FEINBERG, a longtime free-market enthusiast and a Republican who never envisioned himself needing the government for help, suddenly found himself running a company that needed federal support to stay alive.
By early last December, with Chrysler bleeding cash, he had become a vocal presence in Washington, circulating around Congressional offices to get his story out. He even offered to put tens of millions of his own money into Chrysler, a move that would have been largely symbolic.
“He said his dad was a blue-collar manufacturing type,” says Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, who often spoke with Mr. Feinberg. “You sit there and you talk to Steve, and you can tell he’s from a background that greatly understands what the American worker is all about.”
But Mr. Feinberg soon found himself negotiating with government officials who understood what Wall Street was all about.
When Congress did not pass a rescue bill for the automakers, the Treasury Department stepped in, using financial authority it had already assumed from its bailout of the banking system. Cerberus’s fate moved into the hands of Steven Shafran, a Goldman Sachs alumnus who represented the government and was regarded inside Treasury as a tough negotiator.
Mr. Shafran forced Cerberus to accept a painfully low valuation of its GMAC stake. He also quashed arguments by Cerberus that Chrysler’s financial arm shouldn’t be responsible for paying back bailout funds provided to Chrysler’s auto operation.
At some point in December, Mr. Feinberg began to realize that Cerberus’s investment in Chrysler’s auto operations was largely unsalvageable. In a phone call with Mr. Shafran about 2 a.m. on Dec. 19, he offered to simply give the car company to the government, according to five people briefed on the call.
Mr. Feinberg says he was offering Cerberus’s stake in the auto company to the government as a bargaining chit for negotiating with bankers, the union and others. But some Treasury officials were worried that he was simply trying to avoid leaving the finance unit on the hook for $2 billion of the $4 billion the auto operation received in federal aid.
Treasury officials declined Mr. Feinberg’s offer and also were so wary of his motives that they put in a rule requiring that federal bailout money provided to Chrysler’s financial arm could be used only to help Chrysler’s auto unit. Despite all of that back and forth, Mr. Shafran says he believes that Cerberus behaved professionally. “They were prepared to work closely with us to ensure a smooth landing for the car company,” he says.
When the Obama administration took over this year, Mr. Feinberg got a second chance to negotiate. He faced yet another Wall Street refugee trying to save the auto industry, Steven Rattner, as well as Ron Bloom, a former banker who worked more recently for the United Steelworkers union.
Mr. Feinberg was particularly focused on decreasing the $2 billion guarantee the previous administration had wrung out of Chrysler’s financial arm. He eventually knocked that amount down by hundreds of millions of dollars after agreeing to give up some other things the government wanted — something Mr. Feinberg regards as a fair outcome.
“Basically,” Mr. Bloom says, “they realized they made a poor investment and wanted to end it in a decent way.” Chrysler filed for bankruptcy protection on April 30 to help clear the way for a merger with the Italian automaker Fiat.
Cerberus now values its Chrysler stake at 19 cents on the dollar. It is a humbling and embarrassing figure for Mr. Feinberg. But it’s better than zero cents on the dollar, which is what his stake might have been worth had the government not bailed him out.
Mr. Feinberg and his colleagues at Cerberus maintain to this day that their time at Chrysler was, in part, a reflection of their patriotism — a view that some analysts find hard to swallow.
“It’s hard to believe that any of these firms — including Cerberus — will be viewed as patriots in 10 years,” said John Rogers, a private equity analyst at Moody’s Investors Service, “because I don’t think their impact on any of these companies will be seen as so positive for the overall economy.”
Mr. Feinberg still begs to differ, saying his experience at Chrysler has left him feeling like a good citizen.
“There were times we could have been tougher and pushed harder and gotten more,” he says, “but it wasn’t the right thing for the country.”