Ford Explores Possible Sale of Aston Martin

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The New York Sun

DETROIT — Ford Motor Co. (F), looking for ways to turn around its struggling operations, said Thursday it would consider selling all or a portion of its Aston Martin unit.

“As part of our ongoing strategic review, we have determined that Aston Martin may be an attractive opportunity to raise capital and generate value,” Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Bill Ford Jr. said in a written statement.

Aston Martin is part of Ford’s Premier Automotive Group, which also includes Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo. The company earlier this month revised its expectations for the group, saying that it no longer expects it to be profitable in 2006.

Ford has said all options are on the table as it carries out its restructuring, which is designed to return its core North American automotive operations to profitability by 2008. The company earlier this month hired investment banker Kenneth Leet, a mergers and acquisitions expert with years of experience at Goldman Sachs, to lead a strategic review of Ford’s operations.

“Since Aston Martin’s dealer network, product architecture and size are distinctly different from other Ford brands, it is the most logical and capital-smart divestiture choice,” according to the statement from Bill Ford.

In recent weeks, potential buyers have expressed an interest in acquiring Ford’s European luxury brands.Among the interested parties is JP Morgan Chase & Co.’s private equity arm, One Equity Partners. Jacques Nasser, a One Equity partner who formerly served as CEO at Ford, is spearheading those talks, people familiar with the matter have said.

Ford said in its statement Thursday that no decisions have been made yet on the fate of the other Premier Automotive Group brands. Bill Ford said the company continues to be “encouraged by Jaguar’s progress and by the strength and consumer appeal of the Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo product lineups.”

Analyst Kevin Tynan at Argus Research said Aston Martin is first on the block because its relatively small size and limited appeal to American or European buyers makes it an easier deal.

“In the name of getting something done, this might be an easier process,” he said.

Asset sales could help Ford fund its restructuring plan, which the company is in the process of accelerating after posting a bigger than expected loss in the first half of the year. Ford, like its larger rival General Motors Corp. (GM), has been losing market share in America to foreign rivals such as Toyota Motor Corp. (TM) and Honda Motor Co. (HMC), while struggling to rein in costs. The American auto makers have also been hurt by lackluster sales of trucks and sport utility vehicles — which have long been profit centers — as consumers fret about high gasoline prices, among other factors.

Ford announced in January, as part of its ‘Way Forward’ turnaround plan, that it would close 14 plants and trim about 30,000 jobs in the coming years, as well as overhaul its product portfolio.

The company, which is slated to announce new measures next month, is said to be mulling further reductions in jobs and benefits, possibly through an expanded early-attrition program, and more plant closures. Reports have also speculated that the company could sell its Ford Motor Credit financing arm, following in the footsteps of a similar move by GM. Ford has already said it will trim production by 21% in the fourth quarter.

Ford shares were up 10 cents, or 1.2% at $8.37 in afternoon trading Thursday. The company’s shares have risen 39% since hitting a 52-week low of $6.06 on July 21, one day after the auto maker said it would accelerate its restructuring effort.

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