Saab cash crisis clouds brand's future

FILE - In this file photo taken Nov. 17, 2010, the new, unveiled 2012 Saab 9-4X crossover is examined by members of the media at its World Premiere at the LA Auto Show in Los Angeles. Strapped for cash and with production at a standstill Thursday, April 14, 2011, automaker Saab is facing its biggest crisis since Dutch company Spyker Cars NV bought it from General Motors Co. over a year ago. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, file)

STOCKHOLM - Strapped for cash and with production at a standstill, automaker Saab is facing its biggest crisis since Dutch company Spyker Cars NV bought it on the cheap from General Motors Co. over a year ago.

Saab is in desperate need of money to pay suppliers and restart its plant in Trollhattan, southwestern Sweden, where workers have been idle since early last week. On Thursday company officials couldn't say when they would return to work.

At the moment, Saab's hopes appear pegged to a Russian multimillionaire who has applied to become part-owner and a plan to sell off Saab's property to raise cash. Both options are being reviewed by Swedish authorities.

But even if the immediate liquidity problems are resolved, analysts say Spyker will be hard pressed to keep the loss-making Swedish brand alive in the longer term. Sales are not meeting targets — whereas the rest of the global auto sector is recovering — and investors are shying away.

"They need large amounts of capital, we are talking about several billion Swedish kronor (several hundred million dollars), because the business doesn't generate that money today," said Martin Skold, an automotive analyst at the Stockholm School of Economics.

Saab, known for its rounded, aerodynamic cars, struggled to make a profit during the 10 years it was fully controlled by GM. It was headed for the scrap heap when Spyker Cars, a small luxury car brand headed by Dutch businessman Victor Muller, bought it for $74 million in cash plus $326 million worth of preferred shares.

His business plan, calling for rediscovering Saab's Swedish roots, was widely praised by the work force of about 3,700 and the Swedish government, which backed the deal with a loan guarantee.

However, industry observers were skeptical that tiny Spyker, which itself has never made a profit and produced only a few dozen cars a year, would be able to turn around a much larger loss-making automaker.

A production stoppage two weeks ago raised fresh concerns about Saab's financial health. Muller called it a "small glitch" and assured reporters Saab was sorting things out with suppliers. Just days later work was suspended again at the factory in Trollhattan and Spyker admitted it needed to secure "short and medium term funding."

Muller's plans to raise cash include selling off Saab's real estate, including the Trollhattan plant, then leasing it back. That move needs permission from the Swedish government, which guaranteed a $550 million loan Saab received from the European Investment Bank last year.

"We have to complete these negotiations, but it is a difficult situation where there are significant remaining complications and they need to be solved by those responsible for Saab," Finance Minister Anders Borg told Swedish TV on Thursday.

Another lifeline could be Russian businessman Vladimir Antonov, who used to be part-owner of Spyker but was forced out by GM during the sale of Saab amid reports of alleged money laundering. He has denied those allegations and has never been charged.

Antonov has said he is prepared to invest €50 million in Saab for a 30 per cent stake, and the Swedish National Debt Office is currently reviewing his application to become part-owner.

In an interview with Swedish TV last year, Antonov said he wanted to start a factory in Russia that would produce budget versions of Saab's 9-3 model for Russia and Eastern Europe.

Spyker sold its original sports car business to Antonov in February, saying that would allow it to focus exclusively on Saab and reduce debt.

Spyker has said it expects Saab to become profitable in 2012 and aims to ramp up production to about 100,000 cars a year.

It rolled out a new 9-5 sedan last year and its 9-4X crossover SUV is expected to hit U.S. dealers this spring.

The company initially expected to sell 45,000 Saabs in 2010, but ended up selling just under 32,000. At the same time, its Swedish peer Volvo increased its sales by some 12 per cent to 373,525 under the ownership of China's Geely.

"Potential customers listen to the debate ... and that adds to the uncertainty surrounding the brand," Skold said.

Ronny Svensson, an auto industry consultant who is not linked to Saab, said the company's ownership should be expanded "so that it isn't concentrated to Victor Muller and his nearest allies." He also called for a "functioning" management.

Saab chief executive Jan Ake Jonsson announced his retirement last month, citing personal reasons, and Muller stepped in as interim CEO.

Finding new investors amid the current turmoil is not going to be easy, said Skold, of the Stockholm School of Economics.

"The brand has received a severe blow from these turns," he said. "If there were few potential owners or financiers before, I don't think they have increased in numbers in the past weeks."

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Online: www.saab.com