Back in mid-March, two couples were spotted in choice courtside seats at a cliffhanger of a Raptors game in the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. The double-dating pairs were Onex Corp. CEO Gerry Schwartz and his wife, Indigo Books top honcho Heather Reisman, and auto parts heiress Belinda Stronach and the man she is currently boyfriending, former Toronto Maple Leafs enforcer Tie Domi. We should have known then.
Not long after that, news emerged that Belinda’s father, Frank, the founder and driving force-field of Aurora, Ontario-based auto parts maker Magna International, was mulling a bid for iconic but ailing American carmaker Chrysler. His partner: Gerry Schwartz. Then Ms. Stronach announced that she would step down as a Liberal MP and leave politics to return to the family company as its vice-chair. Her message to the public: Daddy needs me at Magna.
But Bay Street types soon began speculating. Perhaps Dad had called Belinda in from the Opposition benches of the House of Commons to run Chrysler.
The automaker was famously bailed out under Lee Iacocca in the 1980s, courtesy of government loan guarantees and union concessions. But it stumbled again in the 1990s–into the acquiring arms of Daimler-Benz. That marriage of Mercedes coupes and (now defunct) Plymouth sedans has faltered of late. Chrysler Group’s lineup of gas-gulping SUVs and trucks, such as the Dodge Ram, together account for 70% of its sales, and the group lost $1.5 billion (U.S.) last year. There are also billions of dollars in unfunded liabilities for employee health care and pensions.
Shareholders have clamoured for DaimlerChrysler’s management to go upmarket and jettison Chrysler. In February, the company started talking to potential buyers. Turns out there’s no shortage of well-financed and eager bidders for the old-school carmaker. Several emerged quickly, including our own Magna.
Out in bucolic Aurora, north of Toronto, Frank Stronach, despite employing co-CEOs at Magna, in the form of long-time lieutenants Don Walker and Siegfried Wolf, and Belinda as executive vice-chair, still pulls the strings like some deus ex machina. When he gazes at DaimlerChrysler, he sees a nervous-making 26% of Magna sales going to one customer. As one veteran Stronach watcher notes, “Frank has to protect his flank.”
The Chrysler bid also dovetails with Frank’s well-documented obsession with family legacy. He’s 74, and although he often says he’ll be around for another 50 years, he needs a succession plan. With no non-family manager getting the nod, that leaves Belinda. And he clearly believes that only she is capable of stewarding the Class B shares, with 500 votes apiece, that allow the family to maintain control of Magna.
The partnership of Schwartz and Stronach could be magic. The two families have had ties for years. Heather Reisman is one of only a few women (aside from Belinda) ever to sit on the Magna board. Gerry’s enormous financial wherewithal and connections give the bid clout. Frank’s brilliance with R&D and manufacturing, and his company’s union-resistant “fair enterprise” philosophy, being simultaneously capitalistic and paternalistic, offer a way out of Chrysler’s labour-cost quagmire.
Doting daddy Frank has made many, many attempts to set up his daughter in life. He joined the board of governors at York University the year before she enrolled. But she dropped out after a year to work for Magna. In 2001, when she was just 34, he made her CEO of Magna. Three years later, he guided and helped to finance her political career, first with the Conservatives, then the Liberals.
But this time, that isn’t going to happen for Belinda. “Say what you want about Frank,” says a savvy Bay Street type, “but he ain’t stupid.” The international car business is a different league, and Chrysler needs “a tough s.o.b. of an automotive executive,” says the business type. “A guy like that is not going to be willing to work for Belinda.”
So it may be that for the first time in Belinda’s restless and ambitious life, the axiom that the rules don’t apply to her may not hold true. Gerry Schwartz’s money and Frank’s legacy are at risk.
But will Belinda be satisfied with simply guarding the family’s interests in the much larger organization from the perch of a nice impressive title of, say, non-executive deputy chair, and collecting a nice salary? Being the corporate hood ornament, in other words. What is certain is that she’ll end up on some Most Powerful Businesswomen in the World list, where she belongs.
Patricia Best writes the Nobody’s Business column three days a week in The Globe and Mail
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