Auto Industry On Its Ear: Magna Becoming a Maker

Last Updated Sep 15, 2009 2:13 PM EDT

After months of politicking and negotiations, it looks as if auto supplier Magna International Inc. and its partner, Russian bank Sberbank, will finally take over a majority stake in Opel, the European operations of General Motors.

At long last, that puts Magna, a Canada-based parts supplier, in the driver's seat as an automaker in its own right.

Add that to a growing list of barriers that the auto industry has been approaching for years, which might never have been broken without the General Motors bankruptcy and the more general crisis in the global auto industry.

Other examples in recent months include a U.S. auto dealership group, Penske Automotive, taking over its own automotive brand, namely GM's Saturn Corp.

Another is the global coming-out of automakers and investors from emerging markets like Russia, China and India. For instance, besides the Sberbank investment in Opel, a Chinese manufacturer reportedly has the inside track to acquire Volvo Car Corp. from Ford. India's Tata Motors earlier acquired Jaguar and Land Rover from Ford.

These outcomes have been foreseeable for years, but would probably have taken longer without Chrysler and GM going bankrupt, and Ford shedding all but its core brands.

Magna, for instance, has been steadily adding to its capabilities, including design and engineering of bigger and bigger sub-systems within a car. Magna has also performed final assembly of vehicles in its own factories on a contract basis for several years, for customers like Chrysler. Magna has grown while many other auto suppliers have failed, but it's hard to imagine Magna taking control of Opel unless GM was on the ropes.

The basics of the agreement are that Magna and Sberbank are 50-50 partners in acquiring 55 percent of Opel, for around $728 million. GM retains 35 percent and Opel employees get 10 percent.

Controversy over government support for the Opel deal, especially by the German government, is ongoing.