The future of cash-strapped, Sweden-based Saab, saved from liquidation last year whensold the auto maker to Dutch millionaire Victor Muller, hinges on a race to build cash and beat a potential bankruptcy forced by the Swedish government.
“It is difficult to be confident,” says Ian Fletcher, an automotive analyst with IHS Global Insight in London.
The Swedish Debt Enforcement Admin. decided Tuesday to begin seeking Saab assets, after launching an investigation earlier in the week to determine whether Swedish Automobile, Saab’s current parent, holds enough cash to pay money owed to some 16 suppliers.
If the agency finds Saab incapable of paying all of its bills, including payroll at the end of the month, it could begin further collection proceedings and possibly throw the auto maker into bankruptcy proceedings it has flirted with for months.
Swedish Automobile issued on Monday its second stock offering in the last two weeks, hoping to raise the money it needs to the pay suppliers and eventually restart production at Saab’s Trollhattan assembly plant, idled since April.
Saab officials decline comment beyond Monday’s statement accompanying the company’s stock offer, when they said the auto maker and its parent “continue their discussions with parties to obtain further short-term funding to restart and sustain production.”
But the optimism Muller raised when he saved Saab from GM’s axe appears to be fading. “Saab does not have months, only weeks or even days,” one industry insider tells Ward’s from Stockholm.
Fletcher believes Muller’s failure to install Russian banker Vladimir Antonov as an investor lies at the heart of Saab’s capital problems. Antonov was expected to invest at least E1 million ($144.1 million) in Saab, but the European Investment Bank funding Saab’s restructuring denied his involvement in July.
Saab did land a E245 million ($350.6 million) investment through a vehicle-supply and joint-venture agreement with Chinese dealership giant Pang da and auto maker Zhejiang Youngman Lotus Automobile.
But the full investment is in limbo, pending approval from the Chinese government. A E25 million ($35.8 million) bridge loan from the hedge fund Gemini Investment Fund in June allowed Saab to make some payments, including missed payroll.
Muller’s failure to name a chief financial officer also worries investors, Fletcher says.
“People are not buying into the company anymore,” he says. “They (Saab) are no longer a trustworthy brand, and they were always at least trustworthy.
“They’ve been way too optimistic,” says Fletcher, noting the research and development costs on the pivotal new 9-3 sports sedan due next year also has taxed the auto maker’s finances.
Saab’s U.S. dealers are less kind. “Things are bleak,” one store owner tells Ward’s.
The dealer thinks Muller was too optimistic about Saab’s prospects, seduced by legions of vocal brand aficionados and unappreciative of the cold facts about the current car line’s profitability.
Two products meant to support Saab until the new 9-3’s debut have not done so, he says. The 9-5 large sedan launched last year has been an over-priced flop, the dealer claims.
Saab also lacks the cash to ship the newly released and well-reviewed 9-4X cross/utility vehicle from the GM assembly plant where the vehicles are built on a confirmed order basis, he adds.
“It’s a tragedy,” the dealer says. “Muller had good intentions. But time is now making the decisions for him.”
Unlike one year ago when dealers lacked product to offer customers, the auto maker sits on inventory of some 242 days, according to Ward’s data. This time, marketing dollars appear to be the hold up, as sales so far this year have totaled just 3,822 units.
Some industry experts think Saab’s best route might be bankruptcy, where it could restructure and Muller could re-launch the brand with the new 9-3.
The effect on GM, which continues to restructure its European Opel brand and keep its turnaround from U.S. bankruptcy on track, would be minimal. The sale of Saab to Muller’s formerCars unit netted GM $74 million and another $326 million in preferred stock.
But to minimize risk to its balance sheet, GM values its stake in Saab as insignificant.
The clouds gathering over Saab casts a dark shadow over an owners convention set to begin today in Parsippany, NJ.
“I wonder if anybody’s going to show up,” says Len Lonnegren, who was director of corporate communications for Saab Scania North America from 1961 to 1989.
Lonnegren, who is scheduled to speak at the convention, laments Saab’s looming demise because “they finally seem to have the right kind of product.” He owns a new 9-3, which he describes as “the sweetest-driving car I’ve ever had.”
Reached by Ward’s at his home in Madison, CT, Lonnegren marvels at the passion consumers have demonstrated for Saab over the years. “We had some pretty crappy products, but still people came back to us,” he says.
Why? Says Lonnegren: “We could never figure that out. We tried. But we couldn’t.”
– with Eric Mayne