NEW YORK — Billionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian, who lost out in Chrysler's 1998 merger with Daimler-Benz, wants to buy the troubled automaker back from its now-unhappy German owners.
Kerkorian's wholly owned investment company, Tracinda Corp., on Thursday made a $4.5 billion cash offer for DaimlerChrysler AG's U.S.-based Chrysler unit.
A deal would put Kerkorian in charge of Chrysler a decade after he claims he was tricked out of potentially billions of dollars in the 1998 deal in which Germany's Daimler-Benz joined with Chrysler in the so-called "merger of equals."
Long an active investor in automakers, the 89-year-old former movie mogul once offered $22.8 billion for Chrysler in an unsuccessful 1995 takeover bid.
Kerkorian's bid, about one-fifth of what he offered in 1995, reflects the falling fortunes of Chrysler Group, which lost $1.5 billion last year and has announced 13,000 job cuts in North America and reduced production.
The offer disclosed Thursday from Tracinda is slightly lower than at least one competing bid from Canadian auto-parts supplier Magna International Inc., worth a reported $4.7 billion. Tracinda said it would place a $100 million deposit for the right to exclusive bargaining rights.
Tracinda in a statement said it wants "to build and strengthen" the troubled automaker and "will offer the UAW and Chrysler management the opportunity to participate as equity partners in the transaction."
California-based Tracinda said its offer is subject to Chrysler reaching a new collective bargaining agreement with the United Auto Workers as well as a deal with DaimlerChrysler on sharing the estimated $22 billion unfunded pension liabilities and health care costs of Chrysler retirees.
Russell Phillips, union steward for UAW Local 1700, said word of a possible sale began filtering through the Sterling Heights, Mich., assembly plant Thursday afternoon. Phillips, a 20-year Chrysler employee, said he thinks the UAW would be interested in listening to such an offer from Tracinda.
"It would be very interesting if we can get something like that so we can help our members," Phillips said. "A lot will depend on how open they are going to be with the UAW and if they really are willing to sit down and talk with us."
Analysts said the deal would be difficult for Kerkorian to pull off because of his turbulent history with Chrysler and the size of the company's large legacy costs.
"I'm not sure what Kirk brings to the party except he can't help himself when it comes to playing with Chrysler," said David Healy, an analyst with Burnham Securities.
But David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., said any deal would require an arrangement with labor on the legacy costs and noted that York has a long history of working with the UAW.
Tracinda said it's ready to start a more extensive review of Chrysler's financial books right away and believes it could complete it within 60 days.
Han Tjan, head of corporate communications for DaimlerChrysler in New York, said the German-American automaker is talking with partners about a sale and that the chairman is satisfied with the process.
"All of our options are still open. For us to talk about (Tracinda) is speculation," Tjan said.
At least two groups in addition to Tracinda and Magna reportedly have expressed interest in Auburn Hills, Mich.-based Chrysler. Cerberus Capital Management LLC and a consortium of investors led by Blackstone Group each have reviewed Chrysler's finances and are expected to make bids.
"As a matter of policy, we can offer no confirmation on any bid submission by Cerberus," said Cerberus spokeswoman J.J. Rissi. John Ford, a spokesman for Blackstone, said he could not comment on Tracinda's bid.
A message seeking comment was also left with officials from Magna.
In a letter to DaimlerChrysler Chairman Dieter Zetsche, Tracinda said it has been following the developments at Chrysler closely and has been studying available materials about the automaker.
"Having been a major shareholder for over a decade we are very familiar with both Chrysler and the automotive industry, and have come to believe, all factors considered, that a private ownership approach is in the best interests of all Chrysler constituencies," said the letter, signed by Tracinda adviser Jerome York, a former Chrysler Corp. executive.
The letter said it would be easier for a privately owned company to take a long-term approach "to build Chrysler into a robust and lasting, stand-alone entity."
Kerkorian long has had interest in automotive companies.
Late last year he dumped the last block of what once was a nearly 10 percent share of General Motors Corp., the world's largest automaker.
He had Kerkorian pushed an alliance between GM, Nissan and Renault SA. GM's board voted to explore the idea of an alliance, but after three months of discussion the idea was scrapped. York served as Tracinda's representative on the GM board but stepped down after the alliance talks fell apart.
Kerkorian, whose Tracinda was Chrysler's largest shareholder at the time of its 1998 merger with DaimlerBenz, sued the combined company in 2000. He claimed that Daimler-Benz engineered a takeover of Chrysler, then cheated him out of billions by casting the deal as a merger of equals. A federal judge rejected his claim.
Tracinda, which is named after Kerkorian's daughters, Tracy and Linda, has the majority stake in the casino and hotel operator MGM Mirage Inc.