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Saturn Retailers, Private Equity Firm Make Bid for Wobbly Brand

Saturn will not manufacture cars and trucks, would-be buyers say. Instead, it will source vehicles from manufacturers globally and sell most under the Saturn brand.

An investor group comprising Saturn retailers and a private-equity firm has approached General Motors Corp. about acquiring the brand and its distribution network to continue selling and servicing vehicles under its longtime customer-centric, hassle-free business model.

Jennifer Threet, a spokeswoman for the group, says GM has responded to the offer, and the next step would be a formal meeting between the two organizations. Threet would not elaborate on terms of the offer.

“They are, in fact, one of the groups we are having discussions with,” Saturn spokesman Mike Morrissey tells Ward’s. “Other parties are interested, as well. They are one of several groups we have had, and continue to have, discussions with on a regular basis.”

Morrissey declines to say whether GM would sit down with this latest group in the coming days and admits the auto maker was not made aware of the group’s intention to make its offer public.

The investor group is led by the Oklahoma City-based private-equity firm Black Oak Partners LLC, which counts interests in other automotive distribution networks among its various investments.

“There is a lot of value in what Saturn brought to the market,” Threet says. “Dealers really believe there is still something special” about the brand.

The group says in a statement its vision for Saturn does not include vehicle assembly; instead, it would source vehicles from manufacturers globally and sell most under the Saturn brand.

All future vehicles would reflect elements of the Saturn brand that have “traditionally resonated with a loyal niche of progressive, environmentally minded consumers who place a high value on a no-hassle sales and service experience,” the group says.

Initially, GM would continue to provide products to the group, and over time Saturn’s portfolio would shift to smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles. Electric vehicles would be a key focus, the group says.

The group considers Saturn’s network of 440 stores, known as Saturn Distribution Corp., lean enough to keep excess cost and inventories low, while also discouraging competition between retailers.

The group says its ownership of Saturn would relieve GM of liabilities related to franchise agreements and save the auto maker from financial losses it could occur at other brands if it were to shut down Saturn. “Saturn retailers, on the other hand, will be provided with an exciting opportunity to secure a return on their existing investment,” John S. Pappanastos, another spokesperson for the investment group, says in a statement.

“And taxpayers will be able to salvage more than 10,000 retail jobs that might otherwise be lost in a GM reorganization, as well as mitigate the potential for substantial local economic impact from Saturn retailer bankruptcies.

“Our goal is to build upon an iconic brand supported by a strong national network of retailers that fundamentally share a vision for delivering a best-in-class customer experience,” Pappanastos says.

GM announced earlier this year plans to sell the Saturn brand and its distribution network, but said it would shut down the unit after the ’11 model year if it could not reach a satisfactory deal. The auto maker allowed the Saturn marketing team to join with retailers to find a suitor.

“The goal from a product perspective would be to find future vehicles that match the Saturn brand: fuel-efficient, safe, reliable and affordable,” Saturn General Manager Jill Lajdziak tells dealers and customers in a recent letter. “From a retailing perspective, we would build on our core strength of unmatched customer service.”

Morrissey says Saturn has about 10 days left under the 60-day window GM granted the brand, and expects it will provide an update to retailers within a week.

“We don’t know how specific we’ll be able to be, but there is significant interest” in the brand and its distribution network, he says.

Morrissey declines comment on how closely the Black Oak proposal meets GM’s demands, but says it does address key concerns, such as future product sourcing, funding and GM’s liabilities going forward.

GM, surviving on billions of dollars in taxpayer loans, is racing a deadline of June 1 to restructure its business to the satisfaction of President Obama’s auto industry task force and the Dept. of Treasury or get thrown into bankruptcy.

In addition to selling Saturn, GM wants to divest Hummer, shrink Pontiac to a niche brand or wind it down altogether, and transform its Saab unit into a salable business. Buick and GMC also face an uncertain future, with reports surfacing in recent days the government considers Chevrolet and Cadillac the auto maker’s best divisions.

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TAGS: Dealers Retail
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