There is the sound of cards being shuffled in Piedmont. Exor, the quoted investment company controlled by Italy’s Agnelli family, has offloaded a 15 per cent stake in SGS, the Swiss inspection group, for SFr2.5bn. The buyer is Groupe Bruxelles Lambert, also a listed investment vehicle and family-controlled – by Canada’s Desmarais and Belgium’s Frère clans. As Exor’s chairman John Elkann acknowledges, everyone knows everyone. But it is the timing that piques interest. The deal comes as Fiat – in which Exor has a 30 per cent interest – is trying to take full control of US-based Chrysler, a transaction that could lead to a reorganisation of the companies’ finances and a large capital raising.
Swiss-listed SGS has been a tidy investment for Exor over the past 13 years. Its shares have more than tripled, easily outstripping market indices. It is where Sergio Marchionne cut his teeth as chief executive, before taking up the same role at Fiat. The stake is being sold at a 1.5 per cent discount to Friday’s close. But that may be the price of convenience and Exor minorities can hardly complain. And SGS is used to having wealthy families on its share register – 15 per cent is held by the von Fincks – so no change there. Mr Marchionne, who surely has demands on his time elsewhere, is even staying on as chairman.
So what does this says about the Fiat/Chrysler situation? Fiat needs to buy out a union trust that owns the other 41.5 per cent of Chrysler. The parties have been miles apart on price: less than $5bn versus more than $10bn. A judge’s ruling on the valuation issue looms. The Agnellis, who want to remain Fiat’s biggest shareholder, will now have some extra short-term flexibility, which may be useful: Exor’s €1.3bn in cash and financial investments had matched gross debt at end-March. But it all hangs on Mr Marchionne winning the poker hand first, by securing a Chrysler deal.
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